Monday, September 7, 2009

Unreasonable Search?

School administrators have long declared an interest and intent to search student for drugs, weapons, and other contraband in the name of security. Some administrators have even gone so far as 'strip searching' students.

As more students carry cell phones and other PDAs on school grounds, administrators have increasingly targeted these devices for search or seizure. The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Mississippi middle-school student.

Jacqui Cheng from Ars Technica provides good coverage of the story. According to Ms. Cheng,
Southaven Middle School in Southaven, Mississippi has a policy against cell phone use during school hours, as many schools do nowadays. In August of 2008, 12-year-old Richard Wade was discovered to be in violation of that policy after he received a text message from his father (who was traveling out of state) during "football class." That's when his cell phone was confiscated by his football coaches and then searched by the principal, as well as the Southaven Police Department. At that time, authorities found what they considered to be extremely scandalous, "gang-related activity"—that is, photos of Wade and a friend dancing in the bathroom at Wade's home. The friend held a BB gun across his chest while he danced.

Wade was suspended and then eventually expelled for having "gang signs" stored on his phone. That's when the ACLU got involved—the organization says that the football coaches, principal, and police violated Wade's constitutional rights and even acted outside of the school's policy of merely confiscating phones during school hours.
On the surface this case appears to not only be in violation of the school's own policy but an assault on the students privacy. However, one must also considers the school's interest in this case. Does the school have a legitimate interest in protecting the general student population from potential threats? If so, how should school administrators balance their interest in providing a secure environment for students against the students right to privacy?

1 comment:

April Eubank said...

You know, I’ve always found the confusion about ageism at the federal level to be an interesting development. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), passed in the 1960s to prevent aging Americans from being fired or never hired in the first place, works as a buffer that prevents the government and the private sector from discriminating on employees by age. Yet, for the laws that let the extremes in age work and function fairly in society, we have a lot of federal laws that seem to erode this principle. We allow minors to be taxed without representation (anyone below the age of 18 without a job has no say in how their tax dollars are used) and we let things like this instance happen…When in loco parentis rights are extended to public schools, it’s just placing ageism into our federal law.

For example, under in loco parentis, schools are generally allowed to search students’ lockers, vehicles, and, as this article makes clear, even bodies. What’s worse, children at a certain age are required by law to be educated. For families that cannot afford private institutions or meet standards for homeschooling (which is the majority of students) a public education is the only option available—and, hence, so is the surrender of certain rights that are held to be inalienable for other Americans. These are rights that would never be infringed upon if one was, say, a postal worker—someone who (1) has chosen to be placed in a public occupation, unlike a student and (2) is in a position that allows for far greater to cause damage to society. The crimes that can be committed with access to the postal service far exceed the threats of any individual child to a school or community. So, if danger isn’t the difference, what is? Age. We have a perception, as a society, that the postal worker has a greater right to privacy than the child in school.

I personally think this is an issue that needs to be dealt with. Do we all have access to constitutional rights? Or are they bestowed upon us at some specific age? The law is confused on age issues. Children access some rights, but not others. At the age of 15, one has a right to free speech but can’t have a gun; one can’t vote but can pay taxes; and when mandated to go to school, has no right to personal privacy of one’s own body.

Maybe I’m crazy, but something seems wrong here. This article definitely speaks to privacy violations, but frankly I think it speaks more to how we view privacy as a right, and as a consideration on who can access that right