Teachers, Administrators, and the Search of Student Cell Phones


As we know, students use their smart phones and cell phones to engage in cyberbullying or other forms of teen technology misuse at school, regardless of the presence of formal policies that prohibit their display or use during some or all hours of the school day. Ask any professional at a middle or high school, and they will tell you that violations of the rules occur with regularity. Additionally, the issue is highly-charged and complicated, based on the numerous comments on our blog about cell phone search and seizure at school. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the vast majority of those involved (school personnel and students) still don’t have a meaningful idea as to their rights – and what is or should be allowed at school with regard to the confiscation of, and evidence acquisition from, these devices.


I’d like to ask our readers to skim through the comments and see what I mean. Why do you think we can’t seem to make much forward progress here? With an increasing amount of cell phone usage among our teens, and with more students owning smartphones, it is critical that we come to some sort of consensus that informs our investigation and response protocols. Justin and I are scrutinizing case law and front-line experiences across school districts in our country, writing book chapters and articles on the subject, and are personally committed to providing practical, unclouded guidance here over the next few months.


  1. Students have a legal right in California to carry and use cell phones/tech on campus, though not necessarily during instructional time for most students. I recall when the lawsuit happened from parents in our district in which we no longer could say no phones on campus. I teach at a high school that is truly spread out in terms of lay out, with about 2,800 students and we are an open campus with varying start times and cars used as lockers in many cases. Students are on campus anywhere from 6:30 am for sports practice to 10:00 pm on weekdays when the theater and gym tends to close and also are around on some weekends, meet informally on the campus when no events happen.

    I am a practioner and not an expert. I do not see how we can stop students from using electronics if we agreed to do so which I can wonder if we would ever all agree, because we need students to be engaged and to learn how to use technology inside the classroom to ask questions, research the answers and to seek help when needed. Even if somehow we blocked cell phones on campus, which I doubt all would want since they have saved lives on the fields and helping ambulances to find classrooms, contacts after earthquakes and so on, students would pick up unsecured access in nearby apartments and homes of signals we could not stop, if in the bathrooms or in locker rooms or other more remote areas. Some students have programs that transfer technology without a trail, names of which I omit here so as not to spread this around.

    In a state such as ours it is common that many students have better technology that the schools, even true for the teachers and the schools. Students spend time weekly learning to override all kinds of firewalls. Students change grades on transcripts for universities, some who have been caught and serving jail time, and it is no surprise that they figure out how to override blocked programs such as You Tube and Facebook, as two prime examples.

    If students fail to use technology as a tool in school to guide their own learning, as a teacher I am in trouble for failing my students to reach their potential, terms used like 21st century skills being used, am told they are unprepared or underprepared for universities.

    The opposite has also happened to some of the comments I skimmed. My phone number was on the cell phone of a struggling student about 5 years ago. He was experiencing major problems which I will intentionally omit here. Admin thought possibly he was dealing drugs, searched his phone when it rang too many times in class and the teacher confiscated it, then began to ask students on his contacts list if they knew me and so on. My phone number was there because I found out his full story and was one of the people who helped him with assignments a few times so he could stay in school and receive a diploma, dong it beyond the school day, and he was never my student nor would be. People were wondering if he or I were connected by illegal drugs? They searched everywhere, his home, locker, car, classrooms, and they never told me they even questioned anyone. He told me. Our admin called in an SRO who later determined he was using legal prescriptions for a verifiable medical problem with a medical note and the prescriptions were sedating him. My reputation as a professional could have plummeted. So about five years ago I learned never to give my phone number to students, though they send e-mails to me I sometimes view by phone in addition to their papers that come through google docs since I can print at home but not easily at school. Students tell me they look for my information online on spokeo, on 123people and other programs. It is not there for the most part, which is amazing since I am living in online and face contact worlds.

    I refuse to search students. I will hold them in my classroom as possible, though once did not when a long blade was involved. The average teacher has about 260 students a day excluding clubs and after school programs, excluding former students. I am encouraged to take photos of students doing well so I may receive grants for the classroom, and I take them so I control images and make sure students are not identified specifically by name and not tagged. Other teachers do not do this and with the lack of clarity in policies or sometimes no policies at all, it is unclear to the average teacher what to do.

    What I am learning now is to have multiple accounts on social programs, one in which possible former students may contact me and I do not need to wonder who they add as friends or what apps they use. Our students who can afford to have iPads in which they load their novels for English classes and sometimes texts on them. The ACLU recently told us, my interpretation, that we must provide books for students who cannot purchase them for any reason. Universities still expect us to teach to the level we do and our state is going bankrupt. I am sometimes relieved when students have iPads and it has become about proper use of them and iPad etiquette. I use tech in school as a current grad/doctoral student and some students will use it in class next year or use it at night where they attend college classes to spend less time in college.

    Our own campus no longer sends to homes class schedules or report cards, parents sign up for Tweets in emergencies, weekly announcements are podcast, and we sometimes connect across the world with tech. We actually need to be careful when families split who has legal access to grade information we may send such as when an assignment is complete due to restraining orders that must reach all parties involved. I have never heard you claim do not use tech, but teach students to use it appropriately and to have clear policies and consequences. We all need some help here with what those policies need to be, because after this comment is written, the reason I follow this site and others is in part because I do not want what I have read has happened to some students to ever happen anywhere and I worry I might possibly have a hand in this and want to be aprt of the solution.

    Thank you.

  2. Students are going to use the technology available to them, inside or outside of the school walls, regardless of what schools allow or don't allow. You are accurate in saying that we need to teach students to use technology appropriately and legally. Well defined policies and consequences may deter negative use of technology to a certain level. Educating people; parents, students, community, etc., is a definite proactive action against cyberbullying. What do you think about focusing on even younger students in grade school? Maybe we need to step up the actions to empower others to take a stand against bullying in hopes of decreasing many of the cyberbullying behaviors or increasing the amount of actions towards holding bullies responsible.

  3. I love the idea of a proactive focus on educating students, parents, and the community against cyberbullying. We all have our work cut out for us, especially as I see some of our local high schools going all iPad. Our campus allows them yet they are not as popular as I know they will be, which will be intriguing to watch how issues are managed. So many layers exist into decreasing cyberbullying yet I always recall why we do it, when I was once not this way. Thank you.

  4. I feel that schools should also take on some more precautions and take control over phone and computer usage with adolescents. I personally feel that cell phones in high school and below should be banned from school period. Why do they have cell phones in school anyways? If their parents need to contact them, they can call the school and if the student drives to school (like seniors in high school) they can leave their cell phones in their car in the glove compartment locked up. This can alleviate some of the issues of mass text used to bully others or record others during school hours. Students can be searched on campus with “reasonableness requirement” and this can be used to reduce violence in general. When I was in high school I remember the school took away our lockers and replaced them with clear ones and also made us carry clear book bags. I am for this all the way especially coming from a school that had many incidents of stabbings (Piper High). The school can also block access to certain websites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc. from being accessed during school hours. The FBI also proposed a program called “Safe Online Surfing” (SOS) which is given to schools “to help students understand how to recognize, report, and avoid online dangers”.

  5. Students are allowed to have cell phones by law, though schools can make rules on when and how they can be used, however difficult to enforce in reality. They have been online all of their lives and then we expect them to listen to lectures? They need to think for themselves, work in groups and learn how to locate information, and sometimes this is done with cell phones. It makes little sense to me in a modern age where we are working to teach students content and how to learn as we prepare them for life in the 21st century that they must power down at the door limiting their access to do their work. They will be unprepared for their present and futures if we did so. They turn in assignments online with their phones. They keep online calendars. They read e-books with their phones. They add images to their Power Point presentations and sometimes teach teachers how to get around programs that are blocked, information we use to strengthen our systems. They register for classes. They check their grades and make appointments with their school counselors online. We have labs open at many hours for those who do not have access so that they may do their work and have products, no longer multiple choice tests.

    District policies are in continual development. Teachers on our campus recently discussed laws and practices of using digital media in the classroom and in our lives. We learn how to use programs such as Quiet Tube to block ads and posts on programs such as You Tube, to have different access for different users, and the responsibilities of teachers. We discuss when teachers must speak up and to whom and how, then what happens when we read something at night. Teachers have wikis, blogs, and our students, too. Check out some of the ISTE or Eduotopia materials where third graders teach each other how to post comments and it is clear this will not work to ban phones from campus.

    When our campus blocks programs, students find ways to break codes and override whatever we develop, keeping advanced databases with codes they distribute that change weekly. Young people have the time and often the motivation. Students have been arrested in our county for changing grades on transcripts after admission into universities to improve appearances. It is far better to begin with students at a young age to teach them responsible use of digital media, to help to develop their sense of empathy and responsibility, and then to have clear policies and follow through with consequences.

    We have had one stabbing that I am aware, and other challenges, on our campus. How many searches are you imagining on a campus of about 3,000 students daily, excluding all of the people who use our facilities from 5:00 am – 10:00 pm each day and night, including weekends, especially in a state such as mine where we continue to grow in numbers of students yet shrink in staff? When students have tech, they may no longer need lockers. I understand my opinion is a less popular one on this site. I realize the problems, which may be why I continue to return here in search of answers. I will continue to support , teach and promote access to it on campus. What we work towards is more of a sense of school community and working with many parties to send messages of what is and is not acceptable and for students to know who to turn to when something goes wrong.

  6. My senior in high school has been carrying his cell phone to school for about 5 years now. Up until his senior year he was very stringent about shutting it off when he got to school. I guess he is feeling his oats this year, because he just silences it now.

    I've gotten into the habit of texting him when I think of something I need to tell him, no matter what time it is. Before this year, he would receive my text messages at the end of his school day, when he turned his phone on. This year, he is receiving them as I send them & it has been to both our benefits. I do not expect an answer to my text when he is in school & he usually does not answer me until the end of the school day. However, he did send me an answer recently and his cell phone was confiscated.

    I would not expect the teacher or the administration to search his phone, although I completely agree with them confiscating it. I had to go up to school & sign something to retrieve it.

    If my son or any child in school is showing naked or 1/2 naked pictures from their phone to another student during class, and is caught during the showing, the teacher SHOULD have the right to address this with upper administration and I would expect there would be rules & policies in place in order to address this behavior. I believe that the parents should be given the opportunity to be a part of the process from that point on. However, I wouldn’t agree with the teacher or the administration searching his phone for more incriminating evidence. I would fight for that right.

    I read your book, Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, and I am very impressed with the information you substantiate and the way in which it is written. It makes for an easy read with the fundamentals of basic information needed to begin addressing these problems in the classroom. I was impressed with the simplicity even as the plethora of information increased and continued.

    I recommend this book for anyone dealing with adolescents, personally or professionally. This should be a staple reading tool for our Educators. Thank you for time you spent on getting the facts out there.

  7. I have gotten my phone taken away numerious amounts of time, and each time i have been given in school suspension. in my opinion it is not right because of the fact that most of the time i am texting one of my parents.

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