Sunday, January 19, 2014

Students' Right To Privacy, and Other 1/14 Highlights

At our board meeting this past Tuesday, we spent a lot of time discussing how search and seizure rules apply to searches of students by school staff, as motivated by an incident that recently made national news.   While some details of that story may not have been fully accurate (a student's re-tweet was apparently deleted rather than the original photo), it brought up some important issues, so our district lawyer came to talk to us about the laws in this area and suggest policy changes.   Apparently the rules for searches in school are a bit weaker than those governing searches of adults by police:  instead of the "probable cause" standard we are used to, only "reasonable suspicion" is required.   The difference between those is a bit fuzzy, and the lawyer pointed out that there is some conflicting case law in this area.  

But one thing that did become clear is that we have a hole in district policy here:   it looks like our policies on student searches have been basically the same for about 20 years, and thus do not take into account ubiquitous cell phones and computers with massive amounts of student data on them.   We definitely need to have well-defined rules in this area, or else there will be confusion, misunderstandings, and inconsistencies in how our staff approaches this issue.   We need to clarify when a search can extend beyond a student's physical possessions and into their emails and data;  I think the standards need to be pretty high here.   The Blaze article implies that a student's emails were searched as a result of the student simply breaking the rule of having a cell phone out during class, which doesn't sound very reasonable.   On the other hand, if they had credible information that a student was arranging drug sales by email, that would be another story.

Another issue that really bothered me in the Blaze article was the concept of a staff member deleting data off a student's phone.   What if the student had been capturing evidence of improper behavior by staff, or of dangerous behavior by another student that was not properly being addressed at school?   I think we need to have a very strong bias in favor of preserving evidence; regardless of whether the staff like the contents of a student's phone or computer, they should never have the power to delete the data.     

I should note, however, that I disagree with some of my strict-libertarian friends on the threshold for staff searching students at school.   There seems to be a line of reasoning that treats the schools like any other government entity, and wants full Fourth Amendment rights for kids in school.   But we need to keep in mind that children do not have the same level of autonomy or responsibility as adults, and the schools are responsible for keeping them safe from themselves and each other during the school day.    If staff were to have reasonable suspicion that a classmate of my daughter's were involved with weapons or drugs, I would want them to be able to quickly address the situation without having to launch an undercover investigation or go to a judge for a warrant.

Anyway, the staff and the district lawyer are going to work together on proposals for revision of our district's search and seizure policy, with these issues in mind.   You'll probably read more here after a concrete proposal is on the table.

Other highlights of the meeting included:
  • Discussion of potential K-8 programs in the district.   The idea here is that some students might benefit from a smaller, intimate, elementary-like atmosphere at the middle school level, rather than the traditional chaos of our large junior highs.   I think it's a great idea to have another option like this available.
  • Inter-district transfer issues.   I was glad to hear that regional agreements blocking cross-district transfers are no longer legal:  so HSD will no longer be able to collude with neighboring districts to force our students to stay here in cases where, for example, they would prefer a Beaverton or Forest Grove school (assuming it had the space).      On the negative side, new laws about these transfers are apparently very confusing, so the staff is waiting for the state to create some guidelines to solidify our current process.
  • Instruction Strategy Update:  Assistant Superintendent Steve Larson updated us on evidence of progress in improving instruction in the district.   Lots of great efforts and training are happening, but rather than a confusing collection of "artifacts" that show all the activity, I would prefer to see a bottom line:  how are we showing that as a result of these training programs, students are actually learning more?   Steve is going to work on some measurements in this area.

That pretty much covers it for this week.   Be sure to email me or post in the comments if you want to weigh in on the student search policy, or any of this week's other topics.

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