An Illinois high school is cracking down on campus drug sales by confiscating the cell phones of student suspects and using their text messages to identify others—an investigative technique that has raised questions among some legal experts and unnerved students who said they assumed texting to be private.
Stevenson High School spokesman Jim Conrey said the ongoing investigation, in which Lincolnshire, Ill., police are also participating, has resulted in multiple suspensions, though he would not provide the number. He said examining student text messages was a legal and appropriate way to gather information about the alleged sales.
“That’s perfectly within our rights within the school,” he said. “If schools have credible evidence that cell phones are being used in some kind of trafficking … we have every right to take the phones.”
As the lives of teens become increasingly intertwined with the technology they carry, investigators are finding revelations about alleged criminal behavior on cell phones, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In a twist, some parents complained that because the school wasn’t saying much about what was happening, their primary source of information became those same social media sites.
And though Conrey said the privacy and legal issues were clear, some experts said courts and legislators are falling behind the galloping technologies.
Kimberly Small, assistant general counsel for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that school officials need only “reasonable suspicion” to search students’ belongings, a standard of proof less strict than the “probable cause” that applies to police officers.
But she noted that a more recent federal law established that owners of electronic devices have a legitimate interest in the confidentiality of their messages. The law has yet to determine exactly how school administrators’ search power intersects with that privacy concern, she said.
“It’s such a gray area for everyone—students, parents, school officials, even law enforcement,” she said.