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Originally published Monday, August 30, 2010 at 9:22 PM

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Oak Harbor schools consider seizing student phones to stop bullying

The American Civil Liberties Union has written to the Oak Harbor School District to say it disagrees with a proposed district policy that would allow seizing and searching student phones. The district is conisdering the policy in order to control bullying.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Last year at Oak Harbor High School, four bullies were threatening a fellow student.

But they weren't meeting her outside for a fight, or even yelling names at her — they were texting her.

Bullying has taken a technological turn, and officials at Oak Harbor School District are looking for ways to control it. Under a proposed new policy, that may mean seizing students' cellphones with probable cause.

But do schools then have the right to search the seized phones? The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) says no, not without a student or parent's permission.

"One shouldn't have to give up the right to privacy to have the other right of public education," said Brian Alseth, director of the group's Technology and Liberty project, which aims to protect technological rights and prevent governmental abuse.

The organization objected to the proposed policy in a letter to the district superintendent; it has offered proposed changes, too.

The School Board discussed the policy at its meeting Monday. Superintendent Rick Schulte said the district wouldn't implement it until at least Sept. 13. He said the board will take that time to consider advice such as the ACLU's.

The proposed policy would fulfill a state requirement that bullying policies be updated by 2011, he said.

Alseth said his main concern is that school officials would have "unfettered access" to students' phones.

If principals were searching a phone for harassing messages, they might, for example, learn about a pregnancy or a student's politics — private information.

But Schulte said that though the policy would allow district officials to seize cellphones without permission, they'd avoid doing so.

If a student reported being harassed by text, he said, a principal or dean might ask to see the victim's or the bully's phones. If neither agreed, their parents would be called. The next step would be to seize the phone, call police or try to solve the issue with other evidence.

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If officials took the phones, they would ask to see specific messages rather than reading them all.

"That's a little more in line with the policies we have drafted," the ACLU's Alseth said, adding that he had not yet spoken with the superintendent.

Dwight Lundstrom, the principal at Oak Harbor High School, said his school deals with cellphone bullying about once a month.

But it's nothing new, he said — schools already deal with harassment via MySpace and Facebook.

Lundstrom said schools will try to teach students how to use cellphones appropriately rather than ban them.

"Every kid seems to carry a phone," he said. "We're crazy not to allow them because they have the Internet at their fingertips."

He said information is often more accessible that way than on the school's limited computers.

Schulte agreed that cellphones are important and said he, too, did not want to ban them, but they do need to be kept in check somehow, he said.

"I've been in education for 38 years, and I've seen bomb threats, and threats to students and staff," he said. "If students can do that with paper and pencil or on a bathroom wall, they can do it with text messages also."

Carly Flandro: 206-464-2108 or cflandro@seattletimes.com

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