High school smartphone do’s and dont’s

An Albany principal's decision to search a student's confiscated iPhone raises sticky constitutional questions

Topics: Privacy, smartphones, iPhone, High School, fourth amendment, unreasonable search and seizure, Editor's Picks,

High school smartphone do's and dont's (Credit: Dan Kosmayer viaskodonnell via iStock via iStock/Salon)

In Albany, N.Y., the father of a 14-year-old teenager whose iPhone was confiscated  after he was caught texting during class is fighting mad. Not because of the confiscation (I’m guessing most parents have no problem with teachers laying down the law against in-class phone use). But because of what the school principal did next. He searched the phone, discovered “inappropriate” pictures of the teenager’s ex-girlfriend, and proceeded to call the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

My own 15-year-old son, who not too long ago had his iPod Touch confiscated for the day when it somehow “accidentally” started playing music during class, happened to be getting ready for school as I read the thoroughly reported Albany Times-Union story. I recounted the details to him.

“Isn’t that just wrong?” he asked.

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And the answer appears to be in legal limbo-land. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of case law on whether the Fourth Amendment protects smartphones against unreasonable search and seizure in high schools.

The good news, for teenagers everywhere, is that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t seem likely to file charges. But the potential stakes are still serious: Both students are underage, so could conceivably face child pornography charges. So “the sheriff’s department is in the process of obtaining a search warrant for the phone….”

Interesting! The sheriff’s department needs to obtain a search warrant before looking through the phone, but the school principal can just do what he wants?

Law enforcement and legal experts agree schools have a greater right to search students and their property than do police among the general public, where the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The question is the line where it becomes too invasive given the circumstances.

[Sheriff] Apple said he can see the father’s viewpoint. “As a parent, I would be extremely annoyed and agitated if someone went through my son’s phone,” he said. “I don’t know what the reasoning is.” That said, he believes students can’t have an expectation of privacy on school grounds …

“We can go in and search a locker with a principal’s OK,” Apple said. “When those kids are in school, the school district has almost the same as parental control over them. The expectation of privacy is somewhat removed.”



To which my son replies: “Hey, the school locker is the school’s property. My phone is my property.”

There may be no correct answer here, or at least, there isn’t yet. Our smartphone-connected lifestyles are moving forward faster than the law can keep up. Of course, in some respects there’s nothing new here at all. The dynamic at play transcends technology. We will always have principals who exceed their authority clashing with students willing and eager to test every available limit.

But what better place than high school to start learning about the dangers inherent in carrying around mobile devices that store all the pertinent details about your life? One of these days, a similar clash will likely lead to a court case that clarifies what the principal can spy on and what he or she can’t. In the meantime, there are a couple of obvious lessons here for students, besides the inadvisability of storing “inappropriate” pictures on their mobile devices. Don’t text in class and password protect your phone.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>