Oak Harbor schools may be searching kids’ phones

  • Sun Aug 22nd, 2010 10:32pm
  • News

By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

OAK HARBOR — School principals may get to look through students’ cellphones if the Oak Harbor School Board signs off on a new policy meant to crack down on cyber-bullying.

The board could allow administrators to confiscate and search electronic devices in certain cases.

School officials say the proposed policy will combat cyber-bullying, a form of harassment performed via e-mail, text message or other electronic means. The policy would extend to messages and images sent outside school hours if that content was shared later during school.

“Really, what it’s about is keeping kids safe,” assistant superintendent Lance Gibbon said.

Some parents feel looking through a student’s cellphone goes too far.

“That’s search and seizure to me — they’re not law enforcement,” said Doug McVey, 45, a father of two teenagers in the district.

Oak Harbor is not alone in reconsidering its approach to cellphones. The Legislature mandated that schools update their policies on bullying by August 2011.

Oak Harbor decided to revise its cellphone policy ahead of time. It patterned its plan on suggestions sent to more than 200 districts statewide by the Washington State School Directors’ Association.

Marilee Scarbrough, the association’s director of policy and legal services, said the policy wouldn’t violate anyone’s rights.

“It’s not about administrators walking up and down the halls saying, ‘I want to see your cellphone,’” she said.

Oak Harbor officials compare the practice to looking through a student’s backpack or locker — standard policy in many schools when a student is suspected of wrongdoing.

That analogy sounded right to officials in the Everett and Edmonds School District. Neither district has a policy on cellphone searches. However, both allow locker and backpack searches.

Jim McNally, executive director of Everett schools, said it’s possible a cellphone could be searched, given the right circumstances.

“If somebody presents us with that sort of evidence, we need to respond,” he said.

Cyber-bullying and sexting — sending lewd content via cellphone — has been in the national spotlight in recent years. Two cheerleaders at Bothell High School were suspended in 2008 after their nude photos circulated via cellphones.

“Technology is moving so quickly that if you’re not ahead of it, particularly in the learning environment, particularly with minors, then you’re falling behind,” school board President Pete Hunt said.

The Oak Harbor policy would allow for searches “with reasonable cause.” However, parents would be contacted before the search took place, Gibbon said. Two administrators would perform the search, with parents encouraged to attend.

“It isn’t something that would happen in isolation,” Gibbon said.

The school board approved a first reading of the policy at its Aug. 9 meeting. It may come back to the board Aug. 30 for approval.

Until then, questions could linger for parents and students.

The McVey family was a case in point.

Josh McVey, 16, is a tight end for Oak Harbor High School’s football team. He said players at last Thursday’s practice were upset about the policy.

“The general idea is that no one likes the idea of getting their phone taken away, period,” he said.

Like his father, Doug McVey, he could understand why a teacher would take away a cellphone from a disruptive student during class.

Letting administrators search it, however, sounded like a policy ripe for abuse.

“It’s not the school’s job to protect students,” he said. “It’s the parent’s job. It’s the school’s job to educate students.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455; arathbun@heraldnet.com.