Student cellphone privacy issue sparks Port Angeles School Board debate

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — A parent’s concern about electronic privacy sparked a debate among Port Angeles School Board members about viewing student cellphone content.

Board members will continue a discussion, begun Monday night, on a possible revised policy at the July 11 board meeting, which will begin with a one-hour executive session at the Central Services Building at 216 E. Fourth St.

Port Angeles parent Jeremy Johnson said the Port Angeles School District Telecommunications Device Policy, Section 3245 D and E, is outdated.

It allows school officials with reasonable suspicion that a student is using a telecommunications device in a way that violates the law or school rule to confiscate it.

“By bringing a cellphone and other electronic devices to school or school-sponsored events, the student and parents consent to the search of the device when school officials have a reasonable suspicion that such a search will reveal a violation of school rules,” the policy continues.

“Content of images that violate state or federal laws will be referred to law enforcement.”

The proposed revision would add that “the scope of the search will be limited to the violation of which the student is accused.”

It also would say the cellphone “shall only be returned to the student’s parent or legal guardian” instead of returning the phone “at the discretion of the administrative staff,” as per the current policy.

Johnson said the present policy exposes the district to lawsuits because there is often personal information on a cellphone, much of which school district employees have no right to see.

‘Highly personal’

“In many cases, an electronic device, like a cellphone, is not the property of the student but of the parent,” he said, adding that cellphones can contain “more information than a school library” and that it can be “highly personal.”

“Gender identity, family relationships, friends, associations, political leanings, religious affiliations, health information, legal documents and more are all examples of sensitive information that can and often is stored on a portable telecommunications device,” Johnson said.

Superintendent Jane Pryne said that after Johnson had contacted her about the policy, she submitted it to the district’s attorney, who suggested several changes and submitted a revised policy for the board to consider.

School Board member Sarah Methner said she wants district officials to consult with the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a policy.

“This policy is a modern-day Tinker,” Methner said, referring to Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the majority opinion wrote: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Methner said: “If some teacher picks up a phone and sees something they shouldn’t, there will be problems.”

Board member Steve Baxter said he is concerned about the school’s possible liability if something untoward happens with a staff member looking at a student phone.

Never look

If a student is suspected of misuse of a cellphone, it should be given directly to parents, Baxter said, adding that school staff should not ever look at the content of a cellphone.

Board member Patti Happe asked whether there is suspected evidence on a phone such as in the case of a bomb threat and who could look at phone content, and suggested turning over phones to administrators.

Methner and Baxter said they believe student electronics should be searched only by parents or by police with probable cause.

“Such a policy would protect us and administrators on school grounds,” Methner said.

Baxter added that the policy should be clear that the student must turn off the phone before handing it to the teacher so the district employee cannot accidentally view sensitive personal information or photos on the phone.

Other school districts in the region already have worked with the ACLU to create enforceable policies that follow constitutional law, Johnson noted.

Board members instructed Pryne to check with those districts to review those policies and return with information at the board meeting Thursday, July 11.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 27. 2013 5:52PM
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