Virginia students’ cellphones and laptops can be seized and searched by public school officials if violations are suspected, according to state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
But school officials must have reasonable grounds to suspect that a student has violated school rules or the law, Cuccinelli wrote in an official advisory opinion in November.
“The supervision and operation of schools present ‘special needs’ beyond normal law enforcement and, therefore, a different framework is justified,” Cuccinelli wrote, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a New Jersey case.
He also said that any sexually explicit material involving a minor discovered during such searches should be shared only with law enforcement. Such material should not be shared with other school personnel.
State Delegate Rob Bell, a Republican, requested the opinion after high school and middle school principals in Albemarle County voiced concerns about cyberbullying.
“They inquired what exactly their legal authority is,” Bell told The Daily Progress newspaper of Charlottesville, Va. “They all said [cyberbullying] is an increasing problem.”
Bell said principals want to intervene if they can, but they do not want to violate anyone’s civil rights or break the law.
John W. Whitehead, the founder of a civil liberties group, the Rutherford Institute, criticized Cuccinelli’s opinion, saying it could lead to violations of students’ civil rights.
“This is bad, bad thinking,” Whitehead told the newspaper. “I’m appalled at this kind of stuff. It’s just appalling that people think like this in a country where we’re supposed to be teaching kids to value freedom and civil rights.”
Whitehead said educators do not have the expertise to judge whether they have probable cause to conduct a search.
“They don’t know what reasonable suspicion is,” he said. “They have one job—teaching students. They’re not law enforcement.”
“This teaches a really bad political science lesson, and that’s that the government can do whatever it wants with you,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Va. Students’ Phones, Laptops Can Be Searched