The implications of schools demanding access to student mobile devices

Schools are demanding the right to search smartphones and laptops in a bid to catch cyberbullying. What are the implications?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Principals in New Zealand are lobbying for a change in legislation that would allow schools to search mobile devices when students are on school property for evidence of cyberbullying.

The report indicates that as a way to change how schools deal with the ongoing issue of cyberbullying, principals want to shift from restorative justice to the suspension of bullies -- with evidence gleaned from being able to legally access student's mobile devices.


As the backlash from the parents of affected students increases, schools are looking for ways that they can legally monitor cyberbullying -- which usually takes the form of text messages or communication across social networks.

Stuff.nz reports that Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh is working with the Ministry of Education in order to try and give principals this power, which means they can search and confiscate mobile phones, laptops or any kind of digital device.

If the request proves successful, it may become a precedent for other countries to follow. Walsh said:

"Cyber-bullying has become so common and the consequences so serious, that it overrides privacy concerns. To discover evidence of cyber-bullying or other inappropriate behaviour, it would be a necessary extension to search and seizure powers."

Last year, guidelines were put in place to allow educators to search their students for drugs and weapons. Now, principals want this to be put in to law -- as a means to also control cyerbullying.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life project stated that 95 percent of teenagers aged between 12-17 are now online, and 41 percent of those surveyed revealed that they have witnessed cruel behaviour online either 'frequently' or 'sometimes'.

As cyberbullying is not a physical act in itself, although it may lead to physical situations, attempting to control it raises a host of issues. It may blur the lines between on-school and off-school free speech, and could put a school’s duty of care responsibilities in to question. The current legal system can be considered out-of-date, as expanding social networking and the increased use of mobile devices are not necessarily accounted for in current legal systems.

Giving educators access to these devices on school grounds may be a way to help combat the problem, but in reality, this approach may make little difference. Just because a principal could be allowed to view a mobile device does not mean they will know what to look for, and it also brings up another host of implications:

- Social networking sites and terms of use - By giving a third-party access, students may be breaking service agreements with sites they are present on. - Privacy: It may lead to a trend where safety is placed before privacy rights, but this in turn could become a slippery slope, and where would lines have to be drawn? - Data protection: To what degree would confiscation result in data access, and would any linked account be open to investigation - including social networking and email? If a laptop is taken, does that translate into the right to pry in to folders, images and video -- or would educators be restricted to online activity (and therefore be able to scour the history folders?) - Parental opinion. Parents may want more security in terms of combating cyberbullies, but will they be happy with schools monitoring their children's behavior online? - Children but not adults? If employers cannot ask potential employees for access to Facebook accounts, why can teachers ask students?

A ministry spokesman has confirmed Walsh had provided advice to officials, but no decisions have officially been made.

Image credit: Johan Larsson


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