Cell phone lawsuit against school board should be thrown out

August 18, 2011

WINNIPEG, MB, Aug. 18, 2011/ Troy Media/ – A recent lawsuit against a Saskatchewan school division threatens to undermine even more the ability of schools to establish a safe and orderly learning environment. The case directly pits the privacy rights of students against the right of administrators to maintain order in schools.

The circumstances behind this lawsuit started out with a routine matter of discipline. A 12-year-old student was caught using his cell phone in a Prince Albert school where such devices are banned. The teacher confiscated the student’s phone and turned it into the office.

Right to privacy violated?

However, things soon became more complicated when the vice-principal discovered text messages on the phone about a recently stolen vehicle. Because of the illegal activity involved, the vice-principal contacted and handed the matter over to police. Upon meeting with the student, the police told him to send a text asking about the location of the vehicle. The police used the response to track down the stolen vehicle and then released the student.

The student’s grandparents allege the vice-principal violated their grandson’s right to privacy when he looked at the text messages on the confiscated cell phone. They further allege the actions of the police made it possible for criminals to identify their grandson as a police informant. As a result, they lived in fear of retaliation and drove their grandson out of Prince Albert every weekend to stay with relatives. Eventually, their grandson moved away to live with his mother on a permanent basis.

The grandparents are now suing the school division for $50 000 in punitive damages along with an additional $1424 in travel costs. They also allege their grandson has anger problems and his grades have dropped as a result of this incident. In their view, all of their grandson’s problems stem from the vice-principal looking at his cell phone.

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This lawsuit epitomizes much of what is wrong in society today. Instead of affirming the importance of the teacher and vice-principal enforcing clear disciplinary policies, these grandparents sided with their grandson even though his actions were the direct cause of his predicament. Parents and guardians should not take school administrators to court simply because they disagree with the way rules are enforced.

As for this particular case, it’s unrealistic for a 12-year-old student to have an expectation of privacy when using a device banned from the classroom. It is well established that teachers who confiscate notes passed from one student to another during class have every right to read those notes. Text messaging on cell phones has, in many ways, become the 21st century version of note passing. If there’s something on your phone you don’t want the teacher to see, don’t use it in the classroom.

While it is true that section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right “to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure,” the courts have also ruled that students in school cannot have the same expectation of privacy as the general public.

For example, in a 1998 decision known as R v. M (M.R.), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a vice-principal who searched a 13-year-old student for drugs in the presence of a police officer did not violate that student’s right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

In that decision, Justice Peter Cory, writing for the majority, affirmed the importance of giving school administrators the authority to enforce school rules and maintain discipline and order. “School authorities must be accorded a reasonable degree of discretion and flexibility to enable them to ensure the safety of their students and to enforce school regulations,” concluded Justice Cory.

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Communicated with a car thief

As for the student’s fear of retaliation from criminals, it seems patently obvious that his situation was entirely of the young man’s own making. He chose to bring a cell phone into class despite knowing it was banned, but he also chose to use that same phone to communicate with a car thief. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging their grandson to take responsibility for his decisions, the grandparents chose to blame the school system.

Teachers and school administrators face many challenges in trying to maintain order and discipline in our schools. Frivolous lawsuits like these are part of the problem rather than the solution.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre (www.fcpp.org), a Manitoba high school teacher, and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.