While schools can control the usage of student phones and confiscate them at any time, current California law requires that school administration receive either permission from the student or a search warrant in order to search the contents of a student’s phone. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, who represents California’s 9th Congressional District, introduced Assembly Bill 165 on Jan. 13. The bill, so far still a proposal, aims to end the need for student permission or a search warrant to look at the information on students’ phones.
AP U.S. History teacher Heather Sadlon discusses the legal precedent for the issue, saying, “In the Supreme Court case Riley v. California, it was determined that warrants are needed to search cell phone data. However, in the case [New Jersey v. T.L.O.], a 1985 case, the Supreme Court decided that while schools are still held to the Fourth Amendment, warrants aren’t feasible and schools therefore do not need a search warrant with ‘probable cause’ — they simply need ‘reasonable suspicion.’”
A fundamental reasoning behind this is that the Supreme Court considers schools to be under a special environment due to their greater educational mission and need for efficiency to meet this greater mission. According to Sadlon, “When you walk onto a school campus, you immediately lose some of your rights. Not completely, but the school has to balance their educational mission with safety, so you end up with less rights. The minute you step off the campus, however, you get them back. So if this bill gets passed, you can immediately expect a case that goes to the Supreme Court, and given that they’ve ruled in favor of [both] phone privacy and school administration, it will be hard to tell where they fall. The specificity of the law is an important part — if the bill is more broad, it is more likely to be struck down.”
Aragon Dean Michael Valmonte speaks about his reaction to the bill, saying, “I definitely support this bill. We can’t go into phones currently and check personal info, even if it has information that is pressing. We sometimes have to deal with drug transactions, cyberbullying, or threats of violence, and so student safety is our priority – this bill will allow us to help keep students safe. If it is between the [well-being] of several students and sacrificing the rights of one, I would pick the [well-being] of the majority.”
Valmonte also talks about the office’s current tactics, saying, “One way to circumvent the law is to go through the parents, as they can search the phone since they are usually the ones paying the bill. In addition, often kids bring information to us, using their phones to capture the evidence and present it because it is a case of cyberbullying and they want the administration to help resolve such issues. Because of this, even if this bill is passed, I don’t see our office using the power frequently.”
The Assemblymember for Aragon’s district, Kevin Mullin, released a statement saying, “I support the right to privacy afforded to all Californians under the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act. I also know how important it is for school administrators to effectively protect students from cyberbullying, which is addressed in the current statute. AB 165 is scheduled to begin the committee process in mid-April and I will be looking for more specific information on the impact it will have on students and teachers prior to taking a position on whether it is a bill I would support or oppose.”
Junior Winston Mok says, “I believe that this bill is okay due to the point that people should have nothing to hide. If it is used to save lives or protect people then it is worth the consequence of having less privacy. I think the school will be responsible with this power. If they catch cheaters then so be it. Also, it will help them stop cyberbullying or other types of things that might cause harm through the internet. If a teacher or administrator asked for my phone, I would probably ask the reason why and probably give it to them. I trust my teachers and the people at my school.”
On the other hand, senior Jad Ghaddar disagrees, saying, “I do not think it is okay for administrators to have such resolute power over our personal information. As Ben Franklin says, when we value safety over liberty, we deserve neither. There is a fundamental flaw in suspending our rights to this degree in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘safety.’ I do respect our school and its administration, but I cannot feel comfortable being subject to such overreaching rules.”
Whether or not the bill will become a law is still unclear — the proposal needs to be passed through committee, both the State Assembly and Senate, and be signed by Governor Brown before it can become law.