School Safety vs. Student Privacy

Larry Price
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Wednesday - June 27, 2007
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It is refreshing to see the Department of Education taking the initiative to improve safety on public school campuses. Last week education officials began discussing changes to the student misconduct code, also known as Chapter 19.

The Board of Education took up the draft with the planned revisions but deferred action on the 40-page document after two hours of lively debate.

The code, which has been untouched since 2001, deserves an update so that it can include new definitions for issues like cyber bullying, forgery and hazing, and to prohibit, in writing, gadgets like laser pen pointers, iPods and DVD players, as well as gang paraphernalia, on school grounds.

Surely there will be those who think all of these issues violate student privacy rights. To their credit, the word is most members seem supportive of the law change that would allow school officials to inspect students’ lockers for drugs, guns and other illegal items to ensure campus safety.

This is not to suggest that school officials are unable to search their respective schools. They can and do, but only in common areas like cafeterias, and gymnasiums. But student, lockers, backpacks, purses and vehicles have always been off limits.

It’s not going to be easy to achieve a consensus on changes to the code. Any changes would be subject to approval by the Board of Education, public hearing and the governor’s signature. The reason it’s not going to be easy is embedded in the definitions of some of the officials’ concerns, as, for example, cyber bullying. There is a good possibility that the majority of concerned parents have never heard the term cyber bullying or know what it means and the legal ramifications involved with managing it.

What is cyber bullying, exactly? It is when a child, preteen

or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. Here’s the catch: In order for there to be an act of cyber bullying, it has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. Once an adult gets involved, it becomes a simple case of cyber-harassment or cyber stalking.

This has nothing to do with adults trying to lure children into offline meetings - that is plain sexual exploitation by a sexual predator. Most of the time cyber bullying does not go that far, although the record shows when it does happen to their youngster, parents often try to pursue criminal charges. In some cases, identity theft is involved, and it can be a serious criminal matter under state and federal law.

Everyone can probably rest assured that the Board of Education will handle this topic with kid gloves, because if a change in the code allows them to discipline the student or students, the big concern will be if the cyber bullying action took place off-campus and outside of school hours, they could be sued for exceeding their authority and thereby violating the student’s free speech rights.

Deputy Schools Superintendent Clayton Fujie said the idea to allow checks of students’ lockers came from principals who responded to a Department of Education survey. Personally, I am encouraged by the DOE’s action for two reasons. First, it’s an educational official’s sworn duty to protect everyone on campus. Second, it’s the first time in recent

memory where something positive was born from an inter-departmental government survey. They usually just are financed, filed and forgotten.

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