Drug investigation raises questions about privacy

Mike Presberg

Are student phones private within a school? photo by Muhammad Al-Rawi
Chicago area news outlets reported Wednesday, Feb. 1 that officials at Adlai E. Stevenson High School — consistently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s finest high schools academically — confiscated multiple student cell phones to view text messages that might assist the school’s investigation into drug sales on campus.
Jim Conrey, Stevenson’s public information coordinator, said the confiscation of a student’s personal property is within the school’s rights as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” the student took part in illegal activity. Conrey said the primary case schools have used to justify obtaining private property is the 1985 Supreme Court case New Jersey vs. TLO, where the court ruled 6-3 in favor of high school officials who searched a female student’s handbag for illegal substances after she was caught smoking.
“A school can’t simply arbitrarily walk down a hallway and confiscate a student cell phone for no good reason; there must be reasonable cause,” Conrey said. “And in the case of the investigation going on here at Stevenson, there has been reasonable cause to inspect cell phones for messages and text messages.”
Private defense attorney and former chair of the board of the Mid-Missouri ACLU Dan Viets, however, said the school’s actions are in violation of the “right to privacy” that every American citizen enjoys.
“They can’t seize somebody’s personal property without a judge issuing a search-warrant allowing them to do so,” Viets said. “They are opening themselves up for some lawsuits, and I’m sure there are plenty of lawyers out there who would defend the students in this case.”
RBHS Principal Mark Maus, who acknowledges the responsibility district officials have in regard to student safety, said he is unaware of any specific legal precedent that stipulates a school must obtain a search-warrant in order to search a student’s property. He said his understanding is that as long as the administration can prove its suspicions regarding a student are reasonable, school officials have the authority to seize a student’s private property.
However, Maus also stresses RBHS has maintained a relatively positive public image not by drastic administrative measures, but instead by establishing respectful and trusting relationships with the student body.
“If there’s something being done, we want to get to the bottom of it,” Maus said. “But that’s more done through talking with our students, not taking or shoveling through their cell phones.”
Viets sees the incident in Illinois as part of a larger pattern of intrusion in higher education administrations over the past few years.
“It really pisses me off when school officials think they can bully students into handing over private property,” Viets said. “And it’s happening more and more.”
Not all students at RBHS, however, agree with Viets’ assessment. Senior Taylor Mathis said it is a school’s responsibility to take whatever actions may be necessary to prevent illegal activity from occurring on school grounds.
“I think that a school not only has the power, but actually should clean up and expel students who do something illegal,” Mathis said. “And as long as there’s no prejudice involved, they can obtain the evidence however they want.”
But senior David Morris echoes Viets’ opinion. He believes confiscating student cell phones is a step too far, and worries this latest occurrence might cause further violations of the students’ right to privacy.
“Even though I understand where [the administrators] are coming from, I think taking the cell phones, which are personal property, is an invasion of privacy,” Morris said. “If they can take our phones, then what can’t they take? And … what exactly does reasonable suspicion even mean? It could mean anything.”
By Mike Presberg