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Oak Harbor sexting policy extends to cyberbullying

The “sexting” policy ready for adoption by the Oak Harbor School District will also give administrators more authority to stop “cyberbullying.”

Despite some inflamed and accusatory comments posted on media messaging boards, Oak Harbor Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon said he’s received little direct feedback regarding the proposed update to the district’s cell phone policy that was introduced at a board meeting in August.

The policy primarily aims to protect against “sexting,” defined as sending, receiving or storing explicit images of minors on a cell phone. It’s a felony offense.

New wording in the policy allows school officials to confiscate or search students’ electronic devices at school or school-sponsored events if they have reasonable suspicion that such a search will result in a violation of school rules.

Mention of the search caused some students and community members to deem the policy an invasion of privacy, but Gibbon said the only feedback he’s received on the issue has been positive, neutral or a request for clarification.

Gibbon pointed out that the policy was developed by the Washington State School Directors Association’s staff attorney and other agencies in June and has already been adopted by other districts. He said Oak Harbor is looking at the policy because WASDA listed it as a high priority issue. In June, a new law was passed that requires school districts to strengthen their cyberbullying policies by August 2011 due to continued harassment in public schools.

In addition to complying with the new legislation, Gibbon said the district is looking at the policy to ensure students are safe and comfortable at school. He said the policy will allow administrators to also put a stop to cyberbullying and other situations that could make a student feel intimidated at school.

“Really we want to protect the rights and privacy of the students,” Gibbon said. “That includes the victims and the students who are suspected of the wrongdoing.”

Gibbon said precedent in previous court cases establishes a definition of “reasonable suspicion” for a variety of settings and said it’s a pretty high threshold.

“We’re not going to check cell phones at random,” Gibbon said. “Reasonable suspicion typically means you have enough evidence to suggest that by conducting a search you’re likely to find further evidence of wrongdoing. In the case of a cell phone that probably would mean you’ve got other students with the inappropriate message on their phones and the phone number there. You can check that sort of information out. Searches aren’t going to be based on word of mouth or the rumor mill.”

According to Gibbon, there haven’t been too many cell phone issues in the district thus far. He said in the entire district last year, there may have been one incident that could be classified as sexting.

He said students accused of such violations generally give their cell phones up voluntarily. He added that it’s the school board’s goal to be as transparent as possible during investigations.

Gibbon said that if an administrator needs to search a device, the parents would be involved as much as possible, and they, along with other officials, would go through the device together so there’s no question that the administrator acted in an inappropriate manner.

Gibbon said the board asked the WASDA staff attorney Marilee Scarbrough to take another look at the policy to confirm that there aren’t any legal problems with it.

According to Scarbrough, the policy was written with great attention to privacy law.

“We work really hard to make sure all of our policies are legally compliant,” Scarbrough said. “If there’s ever a tweak we have to make, we’ll make it, but our policies are based on sound legal principles.”

Scarbrough said the policy was written in response to a flurry of sexting incidents in Skagit County.

“The goal is to let students know that this is serious,” she said. “I think it’s good that people are talking about it. It’s very important though that people understand the objective is not to stop every kid in the hallway and checking their cell phone. It’s not about a picture of a girl in a bathing suit. It’s about those really troublesome incidents that have occurred and how to help administrators and students work through those. I think it can be done without violating people’s rights.”

Coupeville School District Superintendent Patty Page said she’s read about Oak Harbor’s new policy proposal, but doesn’t plan to implement a similar policy in Coupeville schools. The Coupeville rules regarding cell phones are listed in a family handbook and state that cell phones are prohibited at school and students who carry them for safety reasons must have them turned off and in their backpacks.

Find out more

The full cell phone and electronic device policy can be found on the district’s website at www.ohsd.net under the School Board/Policies section. The policy has been recently updated to include more specific language and to detail a procedure for dealing with investigations. The second reading of the policy will be on Monday, Aug. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the district office. The vote to adopt the policy is now scheduled for September.

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