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Parents upset by school district policy on seizing student phones to delete fight videos

May 3, 2017 Updated Wed., May 3, 2017 at 11:56 a.m.

A Spokane Public Schools policy allowing officials to seize student cell phones used to record fist fights on school property has some parents worried about privacy. (File photo / SR)
A Spokane Public Schools policy allowing officials to seize student cell phones used to record fist fights on school property has some parents worried about privacy. (File photo / SR)

When two girls started brawling at Chase Middle School last week, several other students responded as kids tend to do nowadays: They pulled out their cellphones and started recording.

But the school district has a rule against filming fights, intended to stop such videos from ending up on YouTube or circulating on Snapchat.

“If you’re videotaping a fight, that’s encouraging fighting,” said Mark Sterk, the district’s safety and security director. “And we don’t tolerate that. We don’t allow that.”

So four boys were escorted to an assistant principal’s office and told to delete any videos of the fight. One was asked to hand over his phone and show the assistant principal how to do it herself. A uniformed school resource officer also responded, but Sterk said the officer didn’t enter the office.

Still, that method of enforcing the no-filming policy has some parents upset.

“I get the concern, but the means don’t always justify the ends,” said Kelly Konkright, who has a son in the seventh grade at Chase. “Leaning on these kids to hand over their phones and give away their right to privacy doesn’t seem like the right way to do it.”

Konkright said his son was in the vicinity of the fight between the two girls on April 25. He also heard about the school’s response from another parent, who talked to the The Spokesman-Review on condition of anonymity.

Both parents said they worry that young students may feel pressured to forfeit their phones and personal information without understanding their rights.

Konkright, a lawyer, said he thinks the school’s actions may violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. He cautioned that he hasn’t thoroughly researched applicable court rulings.

Konkright also said it’s troubling that school officials may be deleting valuable evidence before deciding how to discipline the students doing the fighting.

“If I knew there was video out there that might change a perception of an incident, I’d want to see that,” he said.

Sterk, a former Spokane County sheriff, said he understands the desire to review all available footage of a violent incident.

“The cop in me says we would want that,” he said. “We’d want that as evidence.”

But a fight between children on school property is usually handled differently than a fight between adults in another setting.

Sterk said school officials often rely on surveillance cameras when making disciplinary decisions. Resource officers, who have a limited commission from the Spokane Police Department, investigate only the most extreme cases.

Sterk said resource officers don’t often collect students’ phones as evidence. Unless a fight causes serious injuries or appears to be a one-sided assault, “it’s not a criminal matter,” he said. “It’s a discipline matter.”

District spokesman Kevin Morrison said he couldn’t discuss how the two girls were disciplined, citing student confidentiality laws. But he said the boys who were called to the assistant principal’s office didn’t face any formal punishment.

Morrison said they “were obviously not aware” of the district’s policy against filming fights, and that the situation was handled as a “teaching moment.” But if they were violating the rule a second time, there could have been other consequences, he said.

The Chase Middle School handbook states that cellphones and other electronics must be turned off and stored in lockers during school hours. If a student is caught using a cellphone, it can be confiscated and returned to a parent or guardian.

Morrison said teachers may enforce that rule with discretion, simply telling students to put away their phones, or confiscating them and handing them back at the end of a class period.

“It’s just like picking up a note that was passed to another another kid,” he said. “It’s a disruption to the education process.”

Vanessa Hernandez, the youth policy director for the ACLU of Washington, said schools are free to limit students’ cellphone use – but only in school during school hours. She said schools must tread a fine line when enforcing such rules.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that cellphones aren’t like other objects,” Hernandez said. “They contain much more personal, much more sensitive information. Searching a cellphone isn’t like opening a backpack, for example.”

To justify searching through a student’s phone, school officials must have reason to believe its contents would be damaging to another student, Hernandez said.

“The mere recording of a fight, I think, doesn’t quite rise to that level,” she said.

In the recent case, Sterk said the assistant principal simply asked one of the boys to hand over his phone. He said the boy then pointed out where to tap on the screen to delete a video.

If a student refuses to cooperate in such circumstances, school officials would call his or her parents, Sterk said.

Hernandez also pointed out that cellphone videos have revealed instances of misconduct by teachers and other school officials. Last year, a Texas teacher was arrested after video showed her repeatedly smacking a student in the back of the head, and a Louisiana teacher was fired for slapping a girl with an electrical cord.

“Student-recorded video has played a big accountability role in some instances,” Hernandez said.

In the past two weeks, videos of two fights at Chase Middle School were shared on Snapchat. They showed two girls – apparently the same ones in each fight – kicking, punching and pulling each other’s hair. One fight took place in a crowded hallway and ended when other students and an adult pulled the girls apart. The other fight happened on a play field.

With the rise of social media and cloud storage apps, Sterk said it’s getting harder to stop such videos from proliferating.

“Even though we delete it they can go back and get it, and that’s a problem for us,” he said.

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