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District: Cell phone search policy not new to Lee schools

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | May 26, 2023

School District of Lee County officials have a message for parents concerned about new student code of conduct language providing for a search of student cell phones if there is “reasonable suspicion” of prohibited activity: The legally-allowed practice has been used for years.

“What bothered me the most was the press coverage. They made it seem like it is a brand new policy. (That) Any teacher can grab a cell phone with no reason and look. That is definitely not the case,” School Board Chair Armor Persons said this week. “Sometimes what is on the phone, knowing right away, can save lives. A drug deal going down in school texting back and forth. You don’t know what time, what bathroom. A shooting plan. Maybe looking at a phone you can find out who the other person is. If a child is doing something that is against policy, they can take the phone, but cannot look at the phone in that case because there is no reason to look at the phone. I am comfortable with having it in there (the code of conduct.) I understand the concerns and if someone does look through a phone inappropriately, we will deal with that. The administrator will be in trouble. It’s as simple as that.”

In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey v. T.L.O. “that school officials do not need to have probable cause or a warrant to search a student. Rather, per the Supreme Court, school officials may use a reasonable suspicion standard to initiate a search. This includes searches of a student’s locker, backpack and cell phones,” district spokesperson Rob Spicker said in an email.

The discussion stemmed around a briefing on the 2023-2024 Code of Conduct for Students. Within the policy, under student Search and Seizure and school board policy 4.03, it states that “school personnel may conduct a search of a student, a student’s possessions, a student locker, or any other storage area on school property, including cell phone and other electronic devices without a warrant when school personnel have reasonable suspicion that illegal, prohibited, harmful items, or substance or stolen property may be concealed.”

Board Attorney Kathy Dupuy-Bruno said the student absolutely has an expectation of privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment. She said the analysis that goes along with that is different from an adult.

“A student is based on reasonable suspicion. A warrant is not required,” Dupuy-Bruno said.

There is a two-pronged approach. The first is to be able to justify a search through reasonable suspicion. The second part is staying within that scope that initiated the review.

“That analysis is very subtle,” Dupuy-Bruno said of the legal analysis. “Over the summer, when we do training, we are working with principals, assistant principals and administrators to make sure they understand it.”

Superintendent Dr. Christopher Bernier said the Code of Conduct will be addressed during the weeks that they train principals, assistant principals and now athletic directors for professional development. Part of that will include Legal 101, which will talk about consistency and the approach to disciplinary responses.

Dupuy-Bruno said she understands the concerns.

“Nothing allows the school district to pull the cell phone to see what is going on. It is narrowly tailored, something that rises to the level,” she said of a circumstance that does not happen on a regular basis.

“It’s a very egregious situation that reasonable suspicion rises to that level.” Bernier said anyone who is a school leader has completed a master’s degree in administration. He said there is legal training and administrators have to understand the two- prong test.

“Under no circumstance would we ever, as part of a screening process, ask to look at a student’s cell phone. This is not new policy,” Bernier said. “If it compromises the safety, or operation of the building, then you have the responsibility of an administrator to make sure you do your due diligence and examine those cell phones.”

Bernier said if there is reasonable suspicion with weapons and drugs, they make sure a police officer is with them, as it is vital for administrators and students to have protection.

“Just because I walk into a classroom, doesn’t mean the student will comply,” he said. “If something were to occur the proper level of law enforcement is present with us.”

An overview of the Code of Conduct was also presented to the school board as there have been changes making it more reader friendly for parents.

Student Services Executive Director Dr. Jessica Duncan provided an overview of some of the changes to the Code of Conduct, which will come before the board again for a second briefing. She said something that came through loud and clear from stakeholder input is the Code of Conduct is lengthy.

With that feedback the proposed Code of Conduct includes QR codes providing parents with the opportunity to dig in deeper within certain areas.

Duncan said Priority Marketing is working on a landing page, which will give parents an opportunity to select the Code of Conduct and then different headings for additional information. In addition, it will also be available in different languages.

“One of the biggest modifications is it no longer will be two separate books,” she said which will be split into two separate sections, elementary and secondary.

The SESIR definitions have also been updated, as well as the reversal of levels to be more aligned with the Department of Education. Duncan said all 45 infractions are in alphabetical order with SESIR codes bolded.

Definitions for fighting have also been expanded.

The second view of the Code of Conduct will come before the board on June 13 before becoming an agenda item on a board action meeting June 27.

Board member Debbie Jordan asked how they ensure parents are reading and signing the Code of Conduct, so a few months down the road they are not saying they did not see or sign it.

Duncan said it is part of the paperwork at the beginning of the school year.