Should Teachers Get To Confiscate Students’ Phones and Laptops?

A new legal opinion may affect your school-age child if they carry a cellphone or laptop to school.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says in an advisory opinion if a teacher has reasonable suspicion that a student is breaking state law or school rules with his cellphone or laptop, the teacher can confiscate it and look at stored messages or content.

“The supervision and operation of schools present special needs’ beyond normal law enforcement and, therefore, a different framework is justified,” Cuccinelli wrote, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a New Jersey case.

Sexting & Cyberbullying

Cuccinelli also says if a teacher finds sexually explicit images on the phone, the teacher should be extra careful and hand the phone over to police.

If the teacher shows the images to anyone else, he or she could be charged with distributing child pornography.

Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, requested the opinion after high school and middle school principals in the county voiced concerns about cyberbullying.

“They inquired what exactly their legal authority is,” Bell told The Daily Progess. “They all said (cyberbullying) is an increasing problem.”

Bell said principals want to intervene if they can but they do not want to violate anyone’s civil rights or break the law.

John W. Whitehead, founder of the civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute, criticized Cuccinelli’s opinion, saying it could lead to violations of students’ civil rights.

The Civil Rights Question

“This is bad, bad thinking,” Whitehead told the newspaper. “I’m appalled at this kind of stuff. It’s just appalling that people think like this in a country where we’re supposed to be teaching kids to value freedom and civil rights.”

Whitehead said teachers and school administrators do not have the expertise to judge whether they have probable cause to conduct a search.

“They don’t know what reasonable suspicion is,” he said. “They have one job – teaching students. They’re not law enforcement.”

“This teaches a really bad political science lesson, and that’s that the government can do whatever it wants with you,” he said.

Source: WTOP and The Associated Press.

What Do You Think?

I want to hear your opinion! Should teachers confiscate phones and laptops? Should someone else? Does it cause a breach in the level of trust in your classroom? Weigh in down in the comments or by tweeting @edudemic.

4 Comments

  1. middleschoolap

    December 1, 2010 at 12:50 am

    "Confiscate," as in take away from a student for inappropriate use and later returned to either the student or a parent/guardian? Yes, by all means, just as we would confiscate any item being misused by a student. But, if you mean should teachers/administrators search student-owned phones or laptops, being used appropriately by the student, then I have to say, "it depends."
    In much the same way an administrator can search a locker or student backpack when there is a suspicion of theft or possession of contraband, it may be necessary to review some contents of a student's electronic device. This is not to say that admin should review the contents of any device they come across (say a phone taken away from a student because it rang in class in violation of school policy), but there are times when it is appropriate. I wouldn't want a teacher taking this responsibility on, but as an administrator I feel it is an important tool in my toolbox.
    I take issue with Mr. Whitehead's comment, "They have one job – teaching students. They’re not law enforcement.” While it's true we're not law enforcement, teaching students itself requires many, many other jobs be done. Chief among these is maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment, and doing so will occasionally require search of a student's belongings. We (at least here in California) don't have to meet the same requirement for probable cause as law enforcement officers on the street. As with a search of student belongings, search of electronic devices should be done with regard for student privacy (as the advisory stated with regards to inappropriate images of students) and respect for their civil rights, but a greater concern is the safety and security of the student body as a whole.
    Mr. Whitehead expressed a concern that some administrators may abuse this authority- certainly, there are ways of addressing such abuses in place already via the complaint process. Prohibiting school officials from searching student electronic devices to prevent abuse is akin to blocking social media or the internet because of the potential for student misconduct- appropriate training in the use of the resource is a much more reasonable approach.

  2. Jennifer Ellan

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 am

    The teacher is responsible for the welfare of students in a classroom. If this means that they need to take action, then they are given the legal means to do that in a balanced and professional manner.

    This idea that cellphones or personal technologies can be brought into schools without consequences to creating digital divides among young people, or even to the impact on the culture of a group of people is frankly not well thought out.

    The people who are advocating this need to be held high today and tagged with the responsibility for pushing personal devices into classrooms. When it goes wrong, they are complicit with the consequences.

  3. JCS

    January 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    While I do feel that teachers can and should confiscate electronic devices that cause distraction or disruption in the classroom, the circumstances in which a teacher or administrator can search files on those devices needs to be clearly and directly stated. If the Virginia AG feels that "if a teacher has reasonable suspicion that a student is breaking state law or school rules with his cellphone or laptop, the teacher can confiscate it and look at stored messages or content" and a school prohibits such devices in general, then by that logic merely receiving a text message allows a teacher to view other private conversations that may not have even taken place in school or during school hours?
    Cyberbullying IS a huge problem, but draconian invasions of privacy are not the solution.

  4. ThomasJacobMorrison

    February 11, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I don’t believe that teachers have a right to confiscate a student’s phone or laptop. If a student does not want to pay attention, they are not going to pay attention whether or not they have a phone or laptop. You cannot force anyone to do something they do not want. In college, professors do not take phones if one of their students uses them. If they don’t pay attention then it is their responsibility. In high schools, the students need to be treated like young adults and not little children who have to be babysat. Sure, if they are causing a disturbance then send them out. But if they are using their phone for whatever reason and not disturbing anyone else, taking the phone only gives the student a feeling of defiance and want to create even more of a disturbance. And I agree with the article: a teacher’s job is to teach…not act as law enforcement. If the teacher suspects that something illegal is going on, then the teacher should notify the appropriate law enforcement agency. And searching a phone or laptop? Inexcusable and outrageous. Since when does anyone, other than the police, have the right to go through someone else’s private information? I’m pretty sure you would not like it if someone just “suspected” you of doing something illegal and just went through your personal info to monitor you essentially. You might argue that we are talking about minors and that since they are not adults they need to be cooperative with the rules. Essentially that is saying that upon becoming 18, all of a sudden you can just break the rules now even though there are consequences. It would be different if someone had a knife or a gun. But a phone? If it is against school policy to use it during class then so be it. But a teacher has no right to confiscate an item. They are not the student’s parent and they are not a law enforcement officer. Do the job that they were hired to do.