• School district will be searching cell phones

    Date: 09.06.10 | by Judge Tom.

    In the Island County School District in Washington principals who have “reasonable suspicion” to believe a student is involved with cyberbullying may confiscate and search his or her cell phone. The new policy goes into effect in the 2010-2011 school year. After the phone is taken from the student the parents are to be notified before the search is done. The objective of the policy is to crack down on students harassing others by email, texts and photos.

    The new policy is not limited to on-campus messages. Students who bully by using their cell phone and bring the phone to school to share their entries with others are also covered under the policy. If tested in court the policy will likely be put to the Tinker test. That means if the school environment is disrupted or a student’s rights violated at school, the school may take action even if the act itself was done away from school. It is similar to the basis for searching a student’s backpack, locker or car parked on school grounds.

    Zabowski (Flickr)

    What does reasonable suspicion mean?

    What does “reasonable suspicion” mean? In the school setting, the phrase dates back to a 1985 case called New Jersey v. T.L.O.*  Terry was a 14 year old eighth grader caught smoking in the school bathroom. She was taken to the principal’s office where she denied smoking. She was told to open her purse where the principal saw cigarettes and rolling papers. A further search turned up marijuana and a list of students who owed Terry money.

    Terry was found delinquent for possession of marijuana and placed on probation. She challenged the search on the basis of an illegal search. The U.S. Supreme Court found two searches in the case and said both were lawful under the”reasonable suspicion” test. Since Terry was seen smoking by a teacher, when she denied it, the principal had reasonable suspicion she was lying. A search of her purse was determined to be reasonable under the circumstances.

    Then when the principal saw evidence of marijuana use [the rolling papers] a further search was reasonable based on the suspicion she might also have marijuana in her purse. Both searches were based on reasonable suspicion and found to be within the limits of the Fourth Amendment.

    It is this “reasonable suspicion” test that will be applied to the school district’s search of students’ cell phones. School administrators are not held to the same standard as the police. Law enforcement personnel must obtain a search warrant from a court before conducting a search unless the search falls within one of the exceptions to warrant requirement. School personnel are not considered law enforcement officials and may act within reason to keep a school safe from drugs and weapons.

    Find out more about this issue and when the police can read text messages.

    Related case:  In 2012, over 200 high schools in England, Scotland and Wales placed cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms. Just the doors to the stalls and sink areas are videotaped with the goal of reducing bullying incidents and in the interest of student safety. The videos are viewed by school officials only when a problem is reported and are kept for up to thirty days. In these countries, such a measure is legal whereas in the United States, the issue is one of “expectation of privacy” and the Fourth Amendment. What do you think about this step to ensure your on-campus safety? Is this going too far?

    On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that a search warrant is needed before conducting a search of someone’s cellphone when arrested. The Court left room in the rare case when special circumstances exist for a warrantless search but the general rule now calls for a search warrant before looking at the content of a cellphone. See Riley v. California. Although the Court did not speak about schools, it’s strong support of the Fourth Amendment and its protections will most likely apply to the school setting when the issue comes up.

    *New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985).

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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