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West Side anti-bullying plan includes cell phone search

Mon., Aug. 23, 2010, 1:36 p.m.

OAK HARBOR, Wash. — Oak Harbor school principals may start looking through cell phones as a way to crack down on cyber-bullying, but some students and their parents in the Island County school district say the proposed policy is an invasion of privacy.

“Really, what it’s about is keeping kids safe,” Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon told the Herald newspaper.

The district wants principals to confiscate and search electronic devices when they suspect students may be using their phones to harass others through e-mails, text messages or photos.

The policy would extend to messages and images sent outside of school hours if that content was then shared during school.

The Legislature has mandated that schools update their policies on bullying by August 2011. Oak Harbor’s plan is based on suggestions from the Washington State School Directors Association.

Some parents think Oak Harbor’s proposed policy goes too far.

“That’s search and seizure to me. They’re not law enforcement,” said Doug McVey, 45, a father of two teenagers in the district.

Marilee Scarbrough, the association’s director of policy and legal services, said the policy wouldn’t violate anyone’s rights.

“It’s not about administrators walking up and down the halls saying, ’I want to see your cell phone,”’ she said.

Oak Harbor officials compared the practice to looking through a student’s backpack or locker. Both are standard policies in neighboring districts such as Everett and Edmonds.

Jim McNally, executive director of Everett schools, said it’s possible a cell phone could be searched in the right circumstances.

“If somebody presents us with that sort of evidence, we need to respond,” he said.

The Oak Harbor policy would allow for searches “with reasonable cause,” and parents would be contacted before the search, Gibbon said.

The Oak Harbor school board plans to vote on the policy Aug. 30.

Josh McVey, a tight-end player for Oak Harbor High School’s football team, said players at practice Thursday were upset about the policy.

“The general idea is that no one likes the idea of getting their phone taken away, period,” the 16-year-old said.

Like his father, McVey understood why a teacher would take away a cell phone from a disruptive student during class. Letting administrators search it, however, could lead to abuse, he said.

“It’s not the school’s job to protect students,” he said. “It’s the parent’s job. It’s the school’s job to educate students.”

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