As we know, students use their smart phones and cell phones to engage in cyberbullying or other forms of teen technology misuse at school, regardless of the presence of formal policies that prohibit their display or use during some or all hours of the school day. Ask any professional at a middle or high school, and they will tell you that violations of the rules occur with regularity. Additionally, the issue is highly-charged and complicated, based on the numerous comments on our blog about cell phone search and seizure at school. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the vast majority of those involved (school personnel and students) still don’t have a meaningful idea as to their rights – and what is or should be allowed at school with regard to the confiscation of, and evidence acquisition from, these devices.
I’d like to ask our readers to skim through the comments and see what I mean. Why do you think we can’t seem to make much forward progress here? With an increasing amount of cell phone usage among our teens, and with more students owning smartphones, it is critical that we come to some sort of consensus that informs our investigation and response protocols. Justin and I are scrutinizing case law and front-line experiences across school districts in our country, writing book chapters and articles on the subject, and are personally committed to providing practical, unclouded guidance here over the next few months.
Here is a recent question submitted that we thought could help others in a similar situation: “In my role as a school administrator, many of the accusations regarding cyberbullying come from third parties. I am unable to produce evidence on the accused offending party because I do not have access to their media device (i.e. texts on cell phone, or access to their social network page). What do you recommend administrators do to address this matter when a third party relates the information? How do we “get the goods” on the accused?”
A: In this situation, it is important to first evaluate the reliability and validity of the statements made by the third party. Is this person known to lie about things like this? You always have to think about the possibility that the case might eventually make its way to court – and if it does, the reputation of the source of the accusation might be an issue. Otherwise you could encourage the third party to have the victim come in to talk to him, or the administrator could approach the victim directly to get the evidence. To be sure, you should also have policy on the books stating that administrators can seize and search the devices of youth where there is reasonable suspicion that a school policy violation has occurred, or that he or she has behaved in a way that infringes upon the rights of another student (or students) to feel safe at school. Then, I would get the digital evidence from the third party or from other students you identify during your investigation that might have evidence on their phones as well. Of course, if a crime has possibly been committed, you can work with law enforcement to subpoena the evidence from the content service provider, cell phone service provider, or Internet service provider. If the child just messed up and acted unwisely and on emotion – call him or her into the office and convey the severity of their offense, and determine if he or she just made a mistake. If so, give them a second chance and exact a minor sanction. If not, consider a more severe penalty.