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Panel tables policy review after question on cellphone search | Local News | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

The policy committee of the Cumberland County Board of Education tabled action on its policy governing personal communications devices in schools to allow time to consider language regarding the search of such devices.

Director of Schools William Stepp said his guidance to administrators is not to search a student cell phone. 

Instead, they can turn it over to the school resource officer who can — if necessary — seek a warrant to search the device.

“What I say to administrators is, we don’t get into phones,” Stepp told the committee during its Aug. 9 meeting. 

“If there’s a legal issue or something going on, go to the SRO.

“The worst thing that you can do is get into a kid’s phone.”

If the phone is taken up by school staff for a disciplinary reason, Stepp said schools call parents to pick up the phone.

“We won’t hold it,” he said. “Some parents will say, ‘keep it.’ But we want to err on the side of the child’s safety. If the child needs that phone, the parent can come in that day, pick up the phone … There are still levels of discipline for cellphone violations.”

The current procedures do, however, say phones are subject to search, and that’s included in school handbooks.

Other school systems in the area do allow for the search of a student’s cellphone in their policy. 

White County, for example, allows school officials to review the phone history, including call log, text messages and photographs, if there is “reasonable suspicion” a cell phone or personal communication device was used in violation of the school’s policy. 

School administrators may also review the contents of a phone if there is “reasonable suspicion” that any student’s or other individual’s safety or health are in danger.

Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said, “I like that language in the policy. It states … safety or harm. 

“That’s where we need to be concerned.”

Searching a phone can be impractical, said Stone Memorial High School Principal Kelly Smith.

“They’re all passcoded,” she said.

That makes it difficult to access a phone to view messages or photos without the student unlocking the phone.

Smith said she had not searched a phone “in years.” 

“The only time potentially I’ve done it is if the parent’s on the phone and I said, ‘This phone’s been taken up, and this is the issue.’ The parent then directs the student to show me something on the phone,” Smith said.

When there has been a fight at a school, Smith said school personnel do contact students known to have been in the vicinity of the fight or other incident.

“We don’t touch the phone,” she said. But they do ask students to delete any videos or photos from a phone.

“They’ll get their phone out, and they’ll delete,” Smith said. “They delete it. I don’t touch the phone.”

BOE Attorney Earl Patton said the difference between procedures and administrator instructions could “send a mixed message.”

Stepp said, “But it could be searched by the SRO.”

Patton agreed that was true, and that school systems wanted to be able to search a phone if there is an “immediate threat.”

“It’s incredibly difficult to make a determination whether you’ve got the right to search and what you search for — that kind of thing … it needs to be tailored to what the initial offense is.”

Boston said, “If you don’t have probable cause or reasonable suspicion, you better not.”

Patton agreed. There have been lawsuits filed against school systems for wrongful phone searches.

The panel tabled action on the policy.

In other action, the committee recommended the following policy changes:

• Policy 6.203, school admissions, to include exemptions to required immunizations as outlined in policy 6.402, physical examinations and immunizations. 

These include religious tenants and practices in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat of an epidemic or due to medical reasons if the student has a written statement from his or her doctor excusing the child from such immunization

• Policy 4.403, library materials, to remove early reference to appeals to the board of education, which is the last step in the complaint process

• Policy 5.116, staff positions, to adopt the model policy from Tennessee School Boards Association which reflects most current law regarding school system staffing, reduction in force and recall

• Policy 6.5001, service animals, to adopt the model policy recommended by the Tennessee School Boards Association based on the most recent guidance regarding service animals

• Policy 6.201, compulsory attendance ages, to adopt the model policy recommended by TSBA which includes the full list of reasons children may be excused from compulsory attendance, with a change in legal reference to reflect current U.S. code

• Policy 3.205, security, tabled for further review

• Policy 5.613, employee social media policy, pulled due to duplication of policy 4.406, internet use

• Policy 3.3001, use of cellular phones, relates to staff phones and was pulled from discussion due to mistakenly being placed on the agenda

• Policy 6.200, attendance, to review the exam policy exemption. 

Becky Hamby, 7th District representative, noted a student had been required to take a final exam due to the death of a close family member. 

While that is an excused absence, the exam exemption policy considers excused and unexcused absences when determining exam exemptions. 

During discussion, the panel elected to make no changes to the policy.


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