Phyllis Law - February 2019

FEB 2019

T he advances in technology have created new possibilities for education and social interaction across the globe. With this comes a tangled mess of questions and concerns about safety and privacy. Among these many concerns, parents and their children have questions about students’ right to privacy regarding cell phone use at school. According to the 1984 United States Supreme Court’s decision in New Jersey v. TLO, school officials can search a student and their personal belongings if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the student has broken the law or school rules and that the search will turn up evidence of wrongdoing. The school’s search must also be related to the purpose and may not be “excessively intrusive.” In response to the increase in students who own cell phones, schools have established policies that address student safety and protect the educational atmosphere of classrooms. Schools may temporarily confiscate a student’s cell phone if the student has violated any policies, but the phone must be returned to the student after a short period of time. In addition, confiscating a phone for violating the policy does not permit a teacher or administrator unfettered access to the contents of the phone. As with any area of the law, the advancements in technology have created some gray areas when it comes to interpreting how much privacy students are entitled to. While many educators and school officials have the best interests of their students in mind, school districts still struggle with defining what lines they can’t cross in their search of students’ phones. Within the past decade, multiple cases have served as

examples of the need for more education about teens’ rights and their privacy at schools.

Digital Dilemmas Educating School Officials, Parents, and Teenagers About Cell Phone Privacy

In 2013, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s finding in G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, claiming that school officials violated a boy’s Fourth Amendment rights when they read all the text messages on his phone after seeing him text while in class. The appeals court found the search was not necessary to find evidence of the student breaking the no-texting rule and that the school had no information to suspect he was guilty of other misconduct. In another case, Gallimore v. Henrico County School Board, a court ruled in 2014 that a school violated a boy’s privacy rights when they searched his phone after accusing him of smoking marijuana on a school bus. The court ruled that because a phone cannot contain drugs and was not related to the search for marijuana, the school violated this boy’s privacy. Lastly, in 2011, a federal judge ruling in the case of N.N. v. Tunkhannock Area School District found that a student could pursue a lawsuit against a school district for violation of privacy. In this case, the student’s phone was confiscated and semi-nude photos of the student were found. The school responded by sending the photos to police for possible criminal charges. As these three cases show, many school officials are uncertain of how to monitor and limit teenagers’ cell phone usage while also respecting their right to privacy. Parents should advise their children to lock their phones with passwords and educate them about their rights. If there is no warrant to search the phone, students have the right to say no — and they should exercise that right. –Phyllis Gingrey Collins

Parents should advise their

children to lock their phones with passwords

and educate them about their rights. ”

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