Civil liberties groups are asking a Tennessee school district to suspend its technology policy, saying it gives school administrators too much power to search students' cellphones and monitor their technology use, as well as limit their social media activity even when it occurs off campus.
When students bring their own devices, like smartphones, onto campus, the Williamson County school district asks parents and students to agree to allow school personnel to search them with few limitations. "The school district may collect and examine any device at any time for the purpose of enforcing the terms of this agreement, investigating student discipline issues, or for any other school-related purpose," according to the district's "Acceptable Use, Media Release, and Internet Safety Procedures" policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that the policy for the school district just south of Nashville subjects students to "suspicionless -- and limitless -- searches" of their devices "for essentially any purpose and without any rational that justifies such a considerable intrusion."
"While the Policy may be the product of a well-intentioned effort to ensure student safety and network security, and to ensure that classrooms are not disrupted, the Policy goes too far and, as written, violates students' constitutional rights," the groups said in a letter sent Monday to Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney and members of the county board of education.
Schools around the country are struggling to balance student safety and educational needs with privacy rights in the digital age, especially as more students bring their own devices to campus. School districts often develop broad policies to combat concerns about social media and technology use. But civil liberties groups say some policies infringe on students' privacy and freedom of speech.
"We care because districts are going further and further down this road, attempting to regulate their students' off-campus speech and institute 'any time, anywhere' device and network search policies," said Nate Cardozo, an EFF staff attorney involved in the challenge. "This policy is a particularly clear example of a district that's gone too far."
It is unclear when the school district adopted the sections of the policy objected to by the groups, although the document appears to have been mostly recently revised in April. "The district received a letter from an ACLU attorney today requesting modification of the Acceptable Use, Media Release, and Internet Safety Procedures," superintendent Looney said in an e-mailed statement, adding that the district's attorneys were reviewing the request. "The district remains committed to protecting the constitutional rights of our students while maintaining a safe and secure learning environment for them.”
The ACLU and EFF were contacted by the parent of a student in the district who initially refused to sign the policy but later relented after the student wasn't allowed to participate in classroom activities involving the school's computers, according to the letter.
"Students couldn't participate in the day-to-day programs and educational activities, not just extracurricular activities," said Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of ACLU's Tennessee chapter."The parent realized the student was going to be denied their education if he didn't sign the policy."
Schools may search students' belongings if there is a reasonable suspicion or if there's contraband, said Cardozo, but the Williamson County policy goes further. "It looks like the school district thought they could get around those restrictions by having parents sign the agreement, but you can't sign away a constitutional right."
The groups raise similar concerns about an aspect of the policy that allows the school district to monitor what students are doing on the school's computer networks without justification. "All network users may be monitored at any time by authorized personnel for the purpose and inspection of compliance to these guidelines," the policy reads. That violates the privacy rights of students, ACLU-TN and EFF argue, especially since they broadly apply to the student population at large, instead of, for example, a specific subset of students engaging in a particular extracurricular activity.
The social media section of the policy raised free speech concerns for the groups. "Students participating in any social media site are not permitted to post photographs of other students or WCS employees without permission from a teacher or administrator," the policy reads, later noting that personal "social media use, including use outside the school day, has the potential to result in disruption in the classroom."
"Imagine a student is going out bowling on the weekend with other students and post a photo on Facebook -- this policy requires they get written permission from school officials," Weinberg said.
"We've seen policies around the country that have tried to say no social media or no texting pictures from campus, and those are generally okay," said Cardozo. "It's when districts start to try to regulate people off campus that they get into trouble." The Williamson County policy is the "most egregious example" of this type of issue he has encountered.
Elsewhere, schools are struggling with similar questions about how much schools can involve themselves in the digital lives of students. In Illinois, a law that went into affect in January required elementary and secondary schools to notify students and parents that the school "may request or require a student to provide a password" to a student's social media account if it has "reasonable cause" to believe it contains evidence that a student has violated a school rule.
Requiring users to share their password violates the terms of service of virtually every social media platform, Cardozo said.
"We are confident that after the Williamson County School Board reads our letter that they will revise their policy," said Weinberg.