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Text Privacy Issue Heats Up at Colorado School

At a high school in Colorado, a dispute over text messages is sparking a debate about the line between discipline and privacy.

It all began when a student at Monarch High School in suburban Denver was hauled into the principal's office on suspicion of smoking cigarettes on school grounds. The principal searched the student's backpack and pockets but did not come up with any evidence of improper activity, says Mark Silverstein, legal director at ACLU Colorado.

"It's the next step that went too far. After administrators found nothing in the backpack, found nothing in the pockets, they took the student's cell phone and began reading the text messages," Silverstein says.

After finding mentions of marijuana, the administrators confiscated the cell phones of several of the student's friends as well. Some of the information obtained from the texts landed in the students' discipline files.

School officials won't confirm or deny this version of events. The situation has infuriated many students; one even opted to destroy her phone rather than share its contents, says Matt Menezes, a Monarch sophomore.

"She knew that that had been happening to a lot of her friends, so she smashed it rather than give it up," he says. "It's not like they have any justification for it at all. ... I'd probably break my phone, too."

Other students say that while the principal may have had good intentions, the ends did not justify the means.

"If he had seen some sort of security threat or had some issue he wanted resolved, he could have read the text messages, but I feel he just took the whole issue too far," says Andrew Locke, a junior at the school.

Exactly how far is appropriate for schools to go in such matters is murky terrain. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1985 established that schools have more latitude to search students than police officers do.

But can the schools go so far as to search text messages? Boulder Valley School District spokesman Briggs Gamblin says yes.

"We believe reasonable suspicion existed to seize the cell phone, and to transcribe the information in the cell phone," he says.

University of Colorado law professor Paul Ohm sees it differently.

"Schools can't look in backpacks or purses based on completely a lack of suspicion, and nor will a court say they can look in a cell phone with no suspicion," Ohm says.

If the case were to go to court, Ohm says, the school district would have to explain thoroughly why it did what it did. If it was a frivolous search, he says, the ACLU has a case. Colorado has a history of taking privacy matters seriously: State law prohibits the recording of electronic communication without the consent of the sender.

At the very least, the search violates state law, the ACLU says. Youngsters today treat cell phones as personal diaries, the organization says, and thereby the administrators overstepped the line.

"There's just so much more potential when searching a cell phone or an e-mail archive, to uncover information that has no relevance to the object of the search, but yet could reveal many private and personal matters," Silverstein says.

The ACLU is demanding that the school adopt a policy that prohibits administrators from searching cell phone text messages. Both sides say they want to avoid going to court, but some privacy advocates say they hope that's exactly where the case is headed.

"I think it's a very good issue for a court to consider, and I think it's important to draw some lines with new technology," says Mark Rottenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Whether or not it is sued, the district will likely adopt a definitive policy governing cell phones, Gamblin says.

"You know five, six years ago, with cell phones, we were simply worried about conversations going on when kids should be listening in class, phones ringing and disturbing the teacher while they were trying to teach, but we weren't worried about pictures, we weren't worried about text messages," he says.

Some schools have banned phones, but he says he doubts Boulder Valley's new policy will go that far.

Kirk Siegler reports for member station KUNC.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.