Demands school halt violations By Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel
8:46 PM EDT, July 25, 2011
A civil-rights group is calling on Boca Raton High School to stop its practice of searching confiscated student cellphones and punishing students who don't provide access to their text messages or other content.
The National Youth Rights Association of Washington, D.C., on Monday outlined its concerns in a letter to Boca Raton High Principal Geoff McKee.
This complaint, which is the organization's first challenge on this issue, contends the school's practices "infringe upon the fundamental freedoms of its students and run counter to the holdings of the Supreme Court and the dictates of the Florida Legislature."
The letter acknowledges the high school's right to seize student phones that are viewed as "disruptive and distracting to learning."
But administrators should not be inspecting these devices to examine photos, text messages and other content, said Jeffrey Nadel, president of the 10,000-member association, which fights for the rights of young people nationwide.
According to the youth rights group, the school also has threatened students with in-school suspensions if they refuse to provide passcodes that are needed to access the phones in the same way passwords are needed to use computers and email accounts.
"We really saw this as a particularly egregious set of circumstances," said Nadel, who cited complaints from current and former students. "You don't teach young people to be good American citizens by infringing on their fundamental rights."
McKee said he had not yet seen the letter, but he promised to give it consideration. It's true that administrators have seized and examined cellphones, he said.
"I understand the grounds for the concerns expressed, and with input from our district legal department, I intend to review our policy regarding student cellphones," McKee said.
A 2004 state law allows students to take wireless devices to school, but Palm Beach County School Board policy says they must be turned off and put in pockets or backpacks while in class, on buses and at school events. Camera phones are prohibited.
The Boca Raton High School student handbook cites the board policy, but also adds two sentences that the rights groups blasted as "unconstitutional."
Those lines are: "Students are responsible for the content of text messages, images, and other information on cellphones. Illicit phone contents will lead to added consequences."
Nadel asked for that language to be removed from the handbook. It's unclear if other schools' handbooks have the same wording as Boca High.
McKee said the issue is making sure that the phones do not contain things like photos of test sheets or harassing text messages.
"Our focus for discipline is on inappropriate use of cellphones," he said.
But the complaint says the school must stop after students surrender their phones, and students should not be presumed guilty of wrongdoing.
"Given that there exist no reasonable grounds to suspect any further violations of school rules or of the law, any search of the actual contents of the phone certainly would not be reasonably related to the objective of the seizure — which is to prevent disruptive conduct," Nadel wrote.
Meanwhile, the school district continues to explore ways to remove the ban on student cellphones to take advantage of new technologies and boost achievement. Officials have said these rules, while helping to protect children from cyber-bullying and prevent high-tech cheating, are also out of touch with today's world of instant communication and contrary to federal recommendations to turn classrooms into smartphone hubs.
Administrators say they've been pleased with the results of pilot programs featuring smartphone or PDA-based instruction. Teachers said the technology can capture students' attention in previously unimaginable ways, with tools such as video demonstrations and personalized lessons.