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ACLU hits proposed Oak Harbor High School cell phone policy

Oak Harbor High School juniors Jessica Cathey, left, and Dawnesha Cathey read text messages on their cell phones. Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon estimates that 1,200 Oak Harbor students have telecommunication devices that they bring to school regularly. - Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor High School juniors Jessica Cathey, left, and Dawnesha Cathey read text messages on their cell phones. Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon estimates that 1,200 Oak Harbor students have telecommunication devices that they bring to school regularly.
— image credit: Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times

Watched by FOX and KIRO TV television cameras, the Oak Harbor School Board Monday night unanimously approved the second reading of its revised cell phone policy, which allows school administrators to confiscate and search a student's cell phone if they have a reasonable suspicion, based on objective and articulable facts, that such a search will reveal a violation of school rules.

Despite the apparent outrage of some parents and community members posted on media websites, few people actually showed up at the meeting to voice concerns.

However, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union made it clear that they think the policy goes too far and the issue has attracted widespread media attention. Oak Harbor is among the first school districts to try to implement a new cell phone policy recommended by the state.

In a letter to Superintendent of Schools Rick Schulte, the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project Director Brian Alseth said searching a student's cell phone differs from searching a backpack or locker because cell phones can store a lot of personal information. A search of a cell phone, especially a smart phone, could reveal the student's political views, family or relationship problems, health issues, etc.

"We believe a more effective policy would be that school officials may seize devices that they reasonably suspect to contain illegal content and, without attempting to search the device, the school may offer to turn the devices over to law enforcement," Alseth suggested. "Law enforcement officials must then proceed to obtain a warrant to search the device where there is probable cause to do so."

ACLU officials sent Oak Harbor a new policy which they believe better protects students' rights and better protects administrators from possible criminal charges regarding the viewing and dissemination of child pornography.

Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon called Oak Harbor's policy a work in progress and said Washington State School Directors' Association officials, who wrote the original policy, are communicating with the ACLU, and changes may be made.

Gibbon pointed out that despite the ACLU's concerns, the searches would be very narrow in scope and administrators would not view anything unrelated to issue.

Board President Peter Hunt further stressed this idea.

"This is not a simple issue," Hunt said. "The reason for it is to maintain student safety and to maintain a constructive learning environment ... the district has neither the will and certainly not the means to intrude on individual cell phones. This is a very targeted, very focused proposed policy."

Schulte said many of the people he's heard from were supportive of the policy, although some suggested banning the devices on school grounds all together - a suggestion the board isn't likely to consider.

"This is a specific technology we've been trying to leverage, especially during tough economic times," Hunt said. "If we ban all of them, nobody wins."

The board members agreed that phones can be used to take school-related photos, videos and notes and assist in student projects and therefore, they want to encourage appropriate use of the devices rather than ban them.

Oak Harbor Education Association President Mike Watson was one of the last to comment on the issue and commended the board on the policy.

"We live in a world that none of us contemplated five years ago, and I personally as a parent and as a staff member would like to compliment you on the work you've done," he said. "This feels like closing the barn door before the horse actually leaves."

The board will discuss the cell phone policy further at its Sept. 13 meeting and may vote to adopt it then.

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