When Should Schools Be Able To Seize And Search A Student's Phone? | Connecticut Public Radio

When Should Schools Be Able To Seize And Search A Student's Phone?

Dec 14, 2018

School districts across the state have varying practices on when and whether school officials should seize and search a student's phone. Now, there's an effort underway to make a statewide policy.

In the 1980s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled students do have a reasonable right to privacy for things like backpacks and lockers.

But when it comes to mobile devices like cell phones and tablets, it’s a lot less clear.

To that end, after several years of failed legislative attempts, the Connecticut General Assembly voted last session to convene a working group on the issue. It met Friday in Hartford.

“Without a doubt, there are districts that are telling students that they have no expectation of privacy, and are searching their phones at will. And that has to end,” said David McGuire, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “I don’t think we’ll be able to curb that without some guidance from the state.”

Leon Smith is director of the racial justice project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. He said establishing a baseline statewide policy on privacy could reduce suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately impact Black and Latino students.

“I know, at our organization, we’ve certainly seen some horror stories of students who, almost on a daily basis, have gotten their phone seized and searched,” Smith said.

More immediately, Smith said he’d like to see more data about what mobile device policies school districts currently have in place.

School districts have argued they’re best suited to draft policies that respond to their local needs. There’s also been caution levied against overly prescriptive legislation that could hinder a teacher from temporarily confiscating a device, if a student was disturbing the learning environment.

State prosecutors said device regulations could also dampen the ability of police to respond to school incidents.

“The law, as it applies to police and searches, is the Supreme Court,” said James Fletcher, with the Waterbury Juvenile Prosecutor’s Office. “I don’t know that I’m comfortable binding the police.”

Members of the working group Friday said a legislative proposal is likely to come up again next session as more electronic devices make their way into schools.