A former Pennsylvania high school student, now 19, has sued school and county officials, claiming school officials invaded her privacy and violated her free-speech rights when they confiscated her cell phone. What was the big deal? They checked out her cell phone, found nude and semi-nude photos stored inside, and turned the phone over to authorities.
The federal lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, says looking at photos on the woman’s phone was like opening her mail or viewing private home videos. As the plaintiff has said: “Those pictures were extremely private and not meant for anyone else’s eyes. What they did is the equivalent of spying on me through my bedroom window.”
How did this happen? The plaintiff, identified only as “N.N.” to protect her identity, was a student at Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock Area High School in January 2009 when a teacher confiscated her cell phone because the young woman broke school rules by making a call on campus.
Let’s get a few things clear here: trying to stop students using their cell phones during the school day has become a major time-consuming occupation for teachers these days. When I catch a student using a cell phone during class, I confiscate that cell phone, hand it over to the administration, and the student has to wait until the end of the week to get it back. Many students have been in tears, begging me not to take their phone away, but it’s never occurred to me that the principal or assistant principal would take time to check out the contents of cell phones confiscated.
According to the lawsuit, N.N. was later called to Principal Gregory Ellsworth’s office, suspended for three days, and told that her cell phone had been turned over to authorities after Ellsworth found nude and semi-nude photos inside. Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. later sent a letter to the school, the lawsuit alleges, threatening to bring child pornography charges against the student unless she completed a re-education course. N.N. says that she took the class out of fear that she would be prosecuted.
A few months ago, I wrote about the case of Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old student at Harriton High School, also in Pennsylvania, whose parents are suing their son’s school, the school district, its board of directors and the superintendent, alleging that the district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely on their son’s district-issued laptop computer to spy on him while he was at home.
And now here’s another tale of school administrators snatching way too much authority and believing that they are the police, the judge and the jury. Privacy is privacy, and personal property is just that. Confiscating a phone when the owner is breaking school rules by using it is not an issue; looking through that phone’s contents is a totally different animal, let alone turning over the phone to the authorities.
School administrators should get on with the business of running their schools. Turning over cell phones to police investigators is not part of their job description.
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