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A dispute over text messages at a high school in Colorado has sparked a debate about how far schools can legally go to discipline students and what privacy rights, if any, students can expect to have.
Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports.
KIRK SIEGLER: It all began when a student at Monarch High School in suburban Denver was hauled into the principal's office on a suspicion he was smoking cigarettes on school grounds. Mark Silverstein, legal director at ACLU Colorado, says the principal searched the student's backpack and pockets but found nothing.
Mr. MARK SILVERSTEIN (ACLU): It's the next step that went too far. After administrators found nothing in the backpack, found nothing in the student's pockets, they took the student's cell phone and began reading the text messages.
SIEGLER: He says the administrator found mentions of pot in the text messages, and the school then began to take and search the cell phones of several of the student's friends. Some of the information from all of those texts landed in the students' discipline files.
School officials won't confirm or deny this version of events. But the situation has infuriated students like Matt Menezes, a Monarch sophomore, who says a friend nearly had her phone confiscated and searched.
Mr. MATT MENEZES (Student): She knew that that had been happening to a lot of her friends, so they asked for her phone and she smashed it rather than give it up. It's not like they have any like justification for it at all, so I'd be pissed, I'd probably break my phone too.
SIEGLER: Junior Andrew Locke thinks the principal may have had good intentions, but...
Mr. ANDREW LOCKE (Student): If he had seen some sort of security threat or had some issue he wanted resolved, he could have read the text messages, but I feel he just took the whole issue too far.
SIEGLER: Or did he? Legal experts say a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1985 established that schools have more latitude to search students than police. And it's a low burden of proof that schools must clear before they can search a student. But can they go so far as to search text messages?
Boulder Valley School District spokesman Briggs Gamblin says yes. And while Gamblin won't talk about specifics because the searches were part of a broad disciplinary investigation, he will say this.
Mr. BRIGG GAMBLIN (Boulder Valley School District): We believe reasonable suspicion existed to seize the cell phone and to transcribe the information in the cell phone.
SIEGLER: But that Supreme Court ruling does not allow for unlimited or unjustified searches, says University of Colorado law professor Paul Ohm.
Professor PAUL OHM (University of Colorado): Schools can't look in backpacks or purses based on completely a lack of suspicion, and nor will a court say they can look in a cell phone with no suspicion.
SIEGLER: Ohm says if the case were to go to court, the school district would have to explain thoroughly why it did what it did. If it was a frivolous search, he says, the ACLU has a case. Ohm says some states, meanwhile, have laws that give students more privacy than was established in the 1985 court case. For instance, Colorado law prohibits the recording of electronic communication without the consent of the sender. It's the ACLU's contention that at the very least the searches violate that state law.
The group's Mark Silverstein says many kids today treat cell phones as personal diaries.
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: There's just so much more potential when searching a cell phone or an e-mail archive to uncover information that has no relevance to the object of the search but yet could reveal many private and personal matters.
SIEGLER: The ACLU is demanding the school adopt a policy that prohibits administrators from searching cell phone text messages. Both sides say they want to avoid going to court. But some privacy advocates like Mark Rottenberg with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington hope that's where this story is headed.
Mr. MARK ROTTENBERG (Electronic Privacy Information Center): I think it's a very good issue for a court to consider, and I think it is important to draw some lines with new technology.
SIEGLER: Back at Boulder Valley, Briggs Gamblin says school districts like his are scrambling to craft policies to keep up with that new technology.
Mr. GAMBLIN: You know, five, six years ago, with cell phones, we were simply worried about conversations going on when kids should be listening in class, phones ringing and disturbing the teacher while they're trying to teach, but we weren't worried about pictures, we weren't worried about text messages.
SIEGLER: Whether or not they are sued, Gamblin expects the district will adopt a definitive policy governing cell phones. Some schools have banned phones, but he doubts their new policy will go that far.
For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.
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