The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of a middle-school boy who was expelled from school after what the group calls an illegal search and seizure of his cell phone. The case could help decide whether school officials have the right to examine a student’s cell phone or other personal technology device without probable cause.
Richard Wade, who was a 12-year-old student at Southaven Middle School in the DeSoto County School District in Mississippi, had his phone confiscated last August by several of his football coaches, his class principal, and a Southaven Police Department sergeant after he read a text message during football class, which was a violation of school rules.
According to the ACLU, after receiving a text message from his father in South Carolina, Wade flipped open his phone to read the message. Rather than confiscate the phone and turn it in to the school office as required by Southaven Middle School policy, several school officials reportedly searched through the phone and found cell-phone photographs of what they described as “gang-related activity.”
The phone was then turned over to police, and Wade was suspended for three days. At a disciplinary hearing the next week, it was argued that Wade posed a threat to school safety, and police argued that they recognized gang signs in the photos stored in Wade’s phone. He was then expelled from the school.
Court records filed by Wade, his mother, and the ACLU state that the photos in Wade’s phone were of him dancing in the bathroom of his home and of a classmate holding a BB gun across his chest.
“This is a case where an honor student was expelled from school because a police officer and school officials decided without any basis that innocent pictures of a kid dancing conveyed ‘gang-related’ messages,” said Reginald T. Shuford, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “School officials and the police officer involved never pointed to anything that would suggest that pictures of Richard dancing were linked to a gang in any way. From the day he had his phone confiscated until the day the county school board expelled him, school and police officials showed a callous disregard for Richard’s rights.”
DeSoto County spokeswoman Katherine Nelson said the district could not comment on the litigation. After Wade was expelled from school, Nelson provided a statement to media outlets that outlined the board policy against student use of cell phones during school hours, which are from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to reports in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Southaven, located in the northwest corner of Mississippi, is part of the Memphis metropolitan area.
“Students know that if they break the rules, their cell phone will be confiscated and that school officials reserve the right to look through the cell phone to see if they were cheating on a test or conducting illegal activities related to gangs or drugs,” the statement said. According to court documents filed by the ACLU, students and parents were not aware of this policy.
Wade and the ACLU argue that the school district not only violated the student’s privacy and right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, but also did not follow school policy concerning a violation of the rule against possession of electronic devices during school. They are suing under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
“The rights of students to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and to due process are not suspended when they walk through the schoolhouse door,” said Kristy Bennett, staff attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi.