Are Schools Allowed to Search Students' Phones?

Jennifer L. Betts
Teacher taking cell phone from student

Your cell phone was confiscated because you decided to text in class. Now you are worried that your teacher is going to search your phone. Can she legally do that? The short answer is maybe. There are a lot of different factors and cases that come into play when it comes to the 4th amendment for students.

Searching a Cell Phone

When you are talking about search and seizure of a cell phone, the most notable case that you will come across is Riley vs. California and New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Court Cases Set Precedent

In Riley vs. California, the Supreme Court made the 4th amendment include cell phones, and in New Jersey v. T.L.O., it was pointed out that unlawful searches extended to students in school settings. Therefore, you would think that searching a cell phone would be outlawed without a warrant. But, and there is a but, in a school setting, you have to take teens well-being into account too. If a teacher or administrator has a solid reason to search your phone, they can. For example, if you texted a bomb threat to the school. Since the well-being of the school is in jeopardy, search they must search your phone.

Justification and Reason

The criteria for searching a phone comes down to justification and reasonability.

  • School administrators must have a justifiable reason for using your phone to discover evidence of a broken rule by you.
  • The search must reasonable and related to the rule that you broke.

Therefore, they could look at your cell phone if:

  • You used your phone to threaten physical death or harm to another student.
  • Threats toward the school came from your phone number.
  • If a student is in immediate harm.
  • If searching your phone will yield additional evidence, like if you cheated on a math exam using your cell phone.

You Can't Do That

If an administrator doesn't have a reasonable or justified reason to search your cell phone, then they can't. So, if your school has a no cell phone policy, a teacher can take your cell phone away if they see it. This is justifiable because there is a rule about using cell phones. That teacher can't look at the contents of yourcell phone unless they have a reason to do so.

Court Case Example

In the case of Klump vs. Nazareth Area School District, the school took the cell phone away because the teen violated the no cell phone policy. The school broke the law, however, when they used the cell phone contents to find other cell phone violators. Their action for using the contents wasn't justified or reasonable for the violation so they broke the law.

When Schools Can't Search Your Phone

Since the school needs probable cause, you have the right to keep the contents of your phone private even if:

  • You're using your cell phone in class when you aren't supposed to or disrupt class with your phone.
  • Principal wants to search your phone because of your friends' actions.
  • You break any other rules and your cell phone is taken.

Knowing Your Rights

It's important to understand your rights in school. Sometimes, looking through your cell phone is warranted with probable cause or in emergency situations. However, you need to know your rights before handing over your cell phone. Check out some additional tips for cell phone searches.

  • If your school has a no cell phone in class policy, it's best to leave it in your locker. That way you won't lose it for breaking the rule.
  • Ask why they want to search your cell phone.
  • Look at your state laws. Some states like California have more clear laws about cell phone searches.
  • If you do get your cell phone searched, watch what they are looking at. Looking for photos of a recent fight wouldn't mean your principal needs to go through your email or Facebook.
  • Unless it falls under an emergency situation or probable cause, they should ask for consent. And you do have the right to refuse.

Your Rights Are Important

Some schools use cell phones as a learning tool. Other schools ban cell phones completely. However, chances are you have a cell phone on you whether your school allows it or not. The search of contents on a cell phone is a gray area that doesn't have a cut and dry answer. Given the circumstances and the state you live in, a search of your cell phone at school might be warranted. However, there needs to be a clear cause before they can violate your privacy. Knowing your rights can make sure that your digital content stays safe at school.

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Are Schools Allowed to Search Students' Phones?