7 things to know about cell phones at school
Cell Phones at School
We have received hundreds and possibly thousands of questions from teens and parents about students’ rights concerning cell phones at school. We highlight some of the top questions below and Judge Tom’s response. Please share your story, thoughts on this issue or question in the comment section below or in our teen chat room. (Remember, you can remain anonymous, too.)
Can schools take cell phones?
Your school may be able to take your cell phone and hold onto it for a certain amount of time depending on your school’s rules and policies. Look at your Student Handbook and your school’s Acceptable Use Policy (“AUP”). It should clearly spell out the rules concerning cell phones and other digital devices on campus. Usually if you violate a rule (cell phone goes off in class, etc.), it can be taken for a period of time. With each violation the penalty increases. Whether they can search your phone is another matter.
Can your teacher or principal search your cell phone?
Schools do have the authority to conduct searches of students, their phones, backpacks, cars on campus, lockers, etc. if they have what’s called “reasonable suspicion” that either a school rule or law has been broken. So, yes, if reasonable suspicion exists, you can be asked to turn over your cell phone. However, there may be limits as to how far they can go in checking your photos, text messages and videos. If you believe your phone was searched without reasonable suspicion and in violation of your rights, talk with your parents about this. They may want to schedule a meeting with the teacher, principal or even the superintendent to straighten out the matter. If a meeting does not help, consulting with an attorney who practices school or education law may be necessary.
What exactly is “reasonable suspicion”?
Teachers, principals and school officials are not held to the higher standard of “probable cause” because they are not law enforcement officials. Reasonable suspicion means more than a hunch that you′re up to something unlawful or are about to break a school rule. Based on a totality of the circumstances—time, place, activity, your school record, age, and source of information—the search may pass the reasonable suspicion test. For more information about reasonable suspicion, read about the landmark Supreme Court opinion New Jersey v. T.L.O. that involved the search of a student’s purse.
Can anything on your phone be used against you? Can you face criminal charges for your texts, photos, videos, etc.?
If evidence of criminal activity is found on your phone, schools may turn this over to the police who will conduct their own investigation. Charges may be filed depending on the outcome of the investigation and evidence from the phone (texts, etc.) can be used in court so long as the search of the phone was lawful and did not violate any rights.
Can private schools search cell phones without having reasonable suspicion?
Private schools that don’t receive federal funds may have different rules that may be legal under the laws of the state where it’s located. So, rules regarding cell phone searches and even confiscation when a school rule is broken may be legitimate. It’s critical to know the school’s cell phone rules and policy at the beginning of the school year so students are aware of their rights.
Is it possible to get your phone back sooner?
Some schools have policies of holding onto phones for as long as a month or even longer when there’s been a violation of the school rule. If your school is holding onto your phone for a long period, ask your parents to schedule a meeting with the principal or vice-principal to discuss the situation. A calm discussion with the powers that be may be successful especially if it’s a first time violation.