A recent Supreme Court ruling forbids unwarranted searching of students' cellphones / The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI - It's been a longtime, informal practice in many schools: Principals - on occasion and when warranted - confiscate and search cellphones if students are suspected of wrongdoing.
As classes open this month, though, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbidding police from searching suspects' cellphones may inadvertently make schools less safe, some principals, school parents and students say.
Principals might now refrain from searching a student's cellphone as part of an investigation and might not find evidence of the next act of violence, cheating or vandalism, giving educators a chance to prevent it.
"On more than one occasion (phone searches) allowed us to prevent some drug sales," said Brian Martin, principal of Ross High School in Butler County, just outside of Cincinnati.
"More times than not, kids will grant us permission to look at their phones or they know that law enforcement may be brought in," said Martin, who added that phone searches are rare but do happen.
In the last half-dozen years, K-12 schools, especially high schools, have reversed previous prohibitions on students' using their cellphones during school hours. The phones and other devices are now welcomed in most schools as personal learning devices. While their use remains strictly regulated to certain times and activities, their widespread use, especially among teens, is a reality in today's school world.
So, too, is the continued threat of violence, drugs, student bullying and other criminal and general misbehavior.
Jennifer Smith, an attorney for Chicago-based law firm Franczek Radelet, which represents hundreds of Illinois school districts, wrote recently that "the long-standing test for searching students at school requires that the search must be based on a 'reasonable suspicion' that the student violated a school rule or law."
Smith said the recent high court ruling "raises new questions about whether such a search may include the contents of a student's cellphone."
Dave Siebert, a Lebanon school parent and a veteran PTA official in the Warren County district, said he knew immediately after the court's June ruling the effects it could have on school security.
"With that Supreme Court ruling it's going to make (principals) nervous," he said. "But at this point, until there is further clarification, searching student cellphones is almost something they have to do if they think there is a danger."
Ric Simmons, law professor for Ohio State University specializing in Fourth Amendment constitutional law as it applies to new technology, cautions that, at the very least, principals and all school officials should be mindful of the ruling.
"(Principals) might overreact ... and say we can't do any (phone searches). Searches should be done for important things. If you are searching for information on heroin or other drugs it may still be allowed," said Simmons, who predicted some school systems will be making changes because of the ruling.
Even students are concerned the ruling will curtail student phone searches.
When threats warrant it and searches are conducted, "I understand and I respect it," said Ross High School senior Austin Powell.
School policy typically lags behind technology, and creating school policies about emerging technologies is often glacially slow.
Middletown Schools Superintendent Sam Ison says the court ruling now has his district reviewing its cellphone policy. He and other area school officials predict more schools will be doing the same.
June's high court ruling is still too new, said some other Cincinnati-area officials.
Officials at the region's largest district, Cincinnati Public Schools, point out that campuses and students are governed by laws and policies that don't grant the same rights as adults outside of schools. Students have always been subject when warranted to locker or book-bag searches by school officials.
"While (other) school searches must be reasonable, school officials are generally not required to have probable cause or a search warrant to search students - unlike law enforcement officers," district spokeswoman Janet Walsh said. "It is not clear to us that(the Supreme Court ruling) will have a significant impact on school searches."
Newport Schools Superintendent Kelly Middleton isn't waiting for legal clarifications when it comes to student and staff safety.
"We are going to continue to use common sense," said Middleton. "If there is a threat of danger, we're going to take the student's phone and let the courts figure it out later."
Contributing: Jessica Brown of The Enquirer; USA TODAY
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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