A Pennsylvania teen who stored intimate photos of herself on her cell phone — but never e-mailed or shared them with anyone other than her longtime boyfriend — settled her federal privacy case against high school officials who had seized the phone without a warrant and turned it over to prosecutors. According to the U.K. Daily Mail, the school agreed to pay the teen and her attorneys $33,000.
Still unsettled, however, is the question of how far educators can go when it comes to fulfilling their obligation to keep sexually explicit images, audio and text from reaching the eyes and ears of minors while on school grounds.
"I hope this settlement will lead school officials in the future to consider whether they have valid grounds to search students' private text messages, emails and photos," the teen, now 19, said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
3 days instead of 90 minutes
To protect her privacy, the teen was named as “N.N.” on the federal complaint the ACLU filed on her behalf. According to it, in January 2009 she was preparing to answer her ringing cell phone on school grounds, a violation of the district policy, when a teacher seized the phone. Summoned to the principal’s office later, the student said the principal confronted her with several images of her exposed breasts found on the phone.
Because of a district policy adopted to deter students from circulating inappropriate images or “sexting,” the 90-minute in-school detention that N.N. normally would have been given for using the cell phone instead became a three-day suspension from school.
In addition, the local district attorney's office mounted an investigation. In the lawsuit, the ACLU claimed that a prosecutor threatened to file charges against the teen if she didn't attend a special class. Instead, N.N. sued everyone involved — including a district attorney’s office investigator who she claimed made the comment that if she had waited a few months until her 18th birthday, Playboy would have published the photos.
"I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in [the] DA's office and police had seen naked pictures of me," N.N., who graduated from the school in 2009, said in a statement released when the lawsuit was filed last year. "Those pictures were extremely private and not meant for anyone else's eyes. What they did is the equivalent of spying on me through my bedroom window."
Although the school district involved settled the lawsuit without admitting any wrongdoing, N.N. is still suing the Wyoming County District Attorney’s Office, which so far has not commented on the suit. A spokesperson could not be reached.
No standard policyThe case didn’t make it to a federal jury, and so far school districts around the country have yet to agree on a standard cell phone search or seizure policy that will pass muster with the courts and privacy groups.
In Washington state, for example, where a school district contemplated a policy that would permit school officials to search students' cell phones without their permission, the regional ACLU office warned that such searches impinge on student privacy rights much more than traditional backpack or locker searches.
"Cell phones store a virtually limitless amount of highly personal information dating back months or years,” ACLU-Washington Technology and Liberty Project director Brian Alseth wrote in a letter to one district superintendent. “By searching a smart phone, administrators could determine a student’s political views, whether a student is having relationship problems, whether their parents might be considering a divorce, whether the student has personal health issues or is pregnant, and whether the student likes sports, World of Warcraft, or shopping for lingerie."
The ACLU has recommended that districts adopt cell phone policies that permit educators to seize devices if they disrupt the learning process, but to not search them without express consent from the student or their legal guardian.