This paper discusses some of the legal and practical issues related to the search and seizure of electronic communication devices by school officials. Examples of such devices include cell phones, iPods, and pagers. The paper identifies challenges that schools officials face by the students’ use of cell phones inschools, and examines the degree of intrusiveness legally permitted during searches. The paper concludes with recommendations for school officials to provide guidance based on recent cases in an unsettled area of law.
The mission of schools.
States created public school systems and assigned them the mission to educate students so they become self-reliant and responsible citizens. Students attendschools not because they are exercising a privilege but because it is a legal requirement. In addition to the importance of the schools’ mission, the compulsory attendance requirement places an even stronger duty on schools to provide a safe and appropriate environment conducive to teaching and learning.
At the same time, Courts have in the past balanced the interest of the student with the needof schools to maintain an orderly environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. Although the rights of students to privacy, speech and due process are not absolute while in schools, students do not lose their rights “at the schoolhouse gate.”
Why are cell phones a problem in schools?
Since May 21, 1981 when the FCC authorized the availability of cell phones for public use, cell phoneshave become smaller, more affordable and more powerful. Cell phones have evolved into devices that not only can make phone calls but have texting and e-mail capacity, video capacity, video games, electronic calendar, camera, calculators, internet access, and in some cases options for many applications including dictionaries, translators and specific subject matter information.
According toCommon Sense Media’s 2009 National Poll High Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools, “Nearly two-thirds of students with cell phones (65%) use them during school, regardless of polices against their use or possession at most schools.” (Common Sense Media, 2010) The survey reports that, on average, teens send 440 texts on an average week, of which 110 are sent from class. Whether storingnotes in a cell phone to view during a test, texting a friend the answers to a test, taking pictures of test questions, searching the internet to find the teacher’s manual or publication with answers, or downloading information from the web to turn as their own, 35% of teens admitted to cheating using their cell phones, and 52% of teens admitted to cheating using the Internet. This survey does notreport on other serious problems created by the use of cell phones such as cyber bullying, sexting, or conducting illicit activities such as dealing controlled substances, illegal drugs, or alcohol.
Cell phones are a strong temptation for students. The news has, on occasion, labeled cell phones as an addiction for young people. Use of cell phones during instructional time—for any purpose—is adisruption to the traditional academic environment. This condition gives school authorities an interest in monitoring, regulating, or forbidding such usage in the interest of educating all the students in the class. However, some parents and students consider cell phones a necessity, and feel strongly entitled to their use and possession. It is this combination of a sense of entitlement, studenttemptation and parental support that makes the problem a persistent one and very difficult to handle. Another factor that exacerbates the challenges school officials face in handling cell phone usage is that courts are in the process of considering cases and issuing decisions on the legality of school district policies and actions by individuals.
The constitutional standard for school searches...