The recent settlement of a high-profile lawsuit in Pennsylvania underscores the risks associated with searches of student electronic devices such as cell phones, iPhones and PDAs. Although the case is not binding on school districts in Illinois, it is a reminder that school administrators need to understand the limits to their rights to search student electronics. Administrators should only undertake such searches when school policy allows them to do so and when they can articulate a clear connection between a student’s violation of school rules and the need for the search.
In N.N. v. Tunkhannock Area School District, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued a public school district after a teacher confiscated the cell phone of a female high school student who used the phone on school grounds during school hours. The principal of the school searched the phone, found semi-nude photographs of the student and turned the phone over to law enforcement. The student was also suspended from school for three days.
In its complaint, the ACLU pointed out that the school’s handbook prohibited using cell phones at school, but only provided for detention as a consequence. The complaint also alleged that the search and seizure were unreasonable under the United States Constitution, because they had nothing to do with the student’s violation of school rules and the phone had to be actively searched to find them.
Last month, the ACLU announced that the school district agreed to a settlement. Although the school district denied culpability, it agreed to pay the student and her legal counsel $33,000 to end the case. The litigation will continue against the District Attorney’s Office, which criminally prosecuted the student.
Although the school district’s motives for settling are unknown, one potential justification for the settlement is the lack of clear precedent as to whether a judge or jury would find the school district’s actions unconstitutional. To mitigate the risk of litigation in such cases, administrators should adhere to school policy when conducting searches, and seek legal advice in situations that are not clearly covered by such policy.