Student cell phone search policy causes debate at BOE meeting

A new policy that will allow school officials to search student cell phones spurred intense discussion at the May 8 Board of Education meeting.

The first reading of the district’s updated Code of Conduct for the next school year revealed that policy #5300.60 would allow the search of students’ electronic devices by teachers and administrators if they suspect a student is using one to cheat or conduct an inappropriate transaction.

Tom Mullen, a parent and one of two residents at the meeting in Violet Avenue Elementary, brought up concerns about the legality of the new rule, saying, “I don’t want to protect drug dealers or anyone of the sort, but something about it just seems wrong, like a violation of privacy.”

He then asked Aviva Kafka, Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel Services, to explain it.

“We do not have the right to search without ‘just cause,’” Kafka clarified.

Board member Perry Sheldon cited cheating on a test as possible reason, saying “If you look at the message — and you’ve confiscated the phone at that point –- and there’s a message from someone else with an answer to a question on the exam…”

After further questions from Mullen, Kafka gave another example of “just cause” from another district: during class, a student’s phone was confiscated after it rang and a teacher then saw an alert on the phone about a drug deal.

Kafka said that in such a case, or if something is found that could endanger students or demonstrates inappropriate behavior, an administrator or school officer would be able to inspect the phone.

However, she added, the inspection could not go beyond the first screen.

And she also said, if there was a serious infraction, the police department would be alerted and could conduct broader searches.

“It’s our preference not to be digging around until we find something,” said Kafka.

Board president Douglas Hieter also pointed out that students can refuse to give their phone password to school officials or police until a warrant was produced.

After more discussion, Mullen said, “I would prefer that the policy be left out of the code entirely unless it was worded in a way that would pertain only to phones that were confiscated.”

Hieter then asked the board to schedule a meeting to re-word the policy, but board members Steven Mittermaier, Perry Sheldon, and Glenn Watson all said that wasn’t necessary.

Mittermaier added, “I will tell you flat-out that I will not vote for a rewording of the document.”

The board then approved the first reading of the Code of Conduct, which also bans e-cigarettes at school and allows dismissal of employees who refuse drug testing.

A second reading and public hearing was scheduled for the next Board of Education meeting Thurs., May 22 at 7pm.

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