In a recent decision, the first federal appellate court to address the rights of school officials to search student cell phones held that a student’s violation of a school rule regarding technology did not justify a general search of the student’s cell phone by Kentucky school district employees. The case is an important reminder to school leaders that they can search student technology in certain circumstances, but they must respect the fine line between a justifiable search and a search that violates a student’s constitutional rights.

The Decision

The case, G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, dealt with a student, G.C., who was involved in a string of disciplinary incidents and had communicated to school officials that he was suicidal. During his freshman year, school officials searched G.C.’s phone after an incident where he walked out of a meeting with a prevention coordinator, left the school building without permission, made a phone call to his father in the parking lot and was found in the parking lot with tobacco products in plain view. The school official who searched the phone cited concerns that the student was going to harm himself as a basis for conducting the search.

That fall, at the beginning of his sophomore year, G.C. violated the school cell phone policy by using his phone to send text messages during class. His teacher confiscated the phone and delivered it to another administrator. The administrator read four text messages on the phone in an effort to see if there was evidence that he was going to harm himself. Although no evidence of misconduct was found on the phone, G.C., who was attending the school as an out-of-district student, was told that he had lost his privileges to attend Owensboro High School because of his behavior.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, addressed a number of issues in its decision, including whether the school district was required to provide G.C. a hearing before telling him he could not attend the high school (it was) and whether the school discriminated against him based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (it did not). But the most interesting element of the decision dealt with whether the school officials were justified in searching the student’s cell phone.

As Education Week reported, the court found that the first cell phone search during G.C.’s freshman year was acceptable, but the search during his sophomore year was not. The court cited the U.S. Supreme Court standard for searches of student property, from New Jersey v. T.L.O, which provides that a search of a student should be reasonable, meaning that it is justified at its inception and reasonable in scope. When is that the case?

  • A search is justified in its inception when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will lead to evidence that a student has violated or is violating the law or the rules of the school, or is in imminent danger of injury of him- or herself or another person on school premises.
  • A search is permissible in its scope if the measures used are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

In G.C.’s case, the court said G.C. conceded that the search of his phone during his freshman year, when an assistant principal checked for evidence that the student was contemplating suicide, was reasonable under the circumstances. There was reason to believe—based on the sequence of events—that G.C. was contemplating injuring himself or breaking additional school rules.

But the September 2009 search after G.C. was caught texting in class was not justified at its inception or reasonable in scope. The school only relied on generalized concerns about G.C. harming himself, which was not enough to justify the search.

Takeaways for School Leaders

As a New York Times editorial put it, the G.C. case makes clear that “[t]here is no unlimited right to search any content on a phone.” School leaders should keep in mind the following insights from the case when considering when the right to search a cell phone or other student technology exists:

  • Any search of student technology must be justified at its inception, which means there must be reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover evidence of further wrongdoing or of injury to the student or another. Not all infractions involving cell phones will present such indications.
  • A student’s violation of a school rule or a state, federal or local law using personal technology is likely sufficient to justify a search at its inception. But the search must also be reasonable in scope. The mere fact that a student has violated a school district rule or a state or federal law with the phone does not justify searching the student’s technology without limit.
  • General background knowledge of drug abuse, depressive tendencies by a student or other violations of law or school district policy, without more, are typically not enough to justify a search at the inception.
  • Any search relating to the violation of a rule or law must be limited to that necessary to establish that violation and not any other unrelated violation. For instance, if a student who is suspected of dealing drugs at school is caught violating a school rule against texting during the school day, school leaders may not search his phone for evidence of drug dealing as that is unrelated to the texting violation at issue.
  • If the school official conducting a reasonably narrow search comes across information about a violation of a school rule or a law unrelated to the initial search, it may be justified in a further search. For instance, imagine a situation where a student denies sending text messages during class and the phone is confiscated and searched to see at what time messages were sent. Imagine that, in order to see the time a message was sent, the school official must open the text of the message itself. If, during that search, a message pops up, sent during class hours, in which the student discusses selling drugs to another student between classes, a good faith argument likely can be made that the school officials can discipline the student for attempting to deal drugs at school. School officials therefore arguably would be justified in searching the phone for further evidence of drug dealing. This issue has yet to be tested in the courts, though, and will require a case-by-case factual analysis, so school officials may wish to contact legal counsel before searching a cell phone further.
  • School officials should never attempt to use a student’s technology to obtain information about wide-scale situations within the school that are only tangentially related to the student’s offense. For example, school officials should not attempt to text, call or email other students on behalf of the owner of the technology in an effort to obtain more information about an ongoing situation at school.