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New Jersey School District Policy to Allow Cellphone Searches

A new policy at Central Regional School District requires students in grades 7-12 to store their phones during class and gives officials authority to search the content of the phones under certain circumstances.

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(TNS) — A New Jersey school district says it will allow officials to search the contents of students’ cell phones under a new electronics policy enacted after a 14-year-old who was allegedly bullied died by suicide last year.

The Central Regional School District in Ocean County said it is also requiring middle school students to store phones in special cell phone pockets while in class and high schoolers must either turn cell phones off and put them away or place them in cell phone pockets at school.

Central Regional — which enrolls about 2,331 students from Berkeley Township, Island Heights, Ocean Gate, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park — said the new electronics policy adopted in August applies to all students in grades 7 through 12.

Central Regional Superintendent Douglas Corbett and school board secretary Kevin O’Shea did not respond to requests for comment on the new policy or why the changes were made.

Although schools in New Jersey have the authority to search a student’s cell phone, experts advise they try less intrusive methods of getting information about an incident before a student’s property is searched. Searching students’ cell phones also raises concerns about the broader issue of surveillance in schools, some critics say.

“The current state of the law seems to give school boards broad discretion to do these types of searches. But, this is part of a broader issue of school surveillance and the erosion of students’ rights to privacy,” said Joe Johnson, policy counsel for American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey.

Central Regional’s new policy says school officials can search a student’s phone “if there is reasonable suspicion that district or Board policies, rules or regulations have been violated, as well as if there is a reasonable suspicion that the electronic mobile device contains information that may be pertinent to a school investigation.”

The new rules are an update to the district’s previous “use of electronic communication and recording devices” policy that was last revised in 2016, according to school records.

The 2016 policy said cell phones could be confiscated by school staff. But, the policy did not say phones could be searched.

It is unclear if the new policy is related to the changes Central Regional planned to make following the suicide of 14-year-old Central Regional High School student Adriana Kuch in February. Adriana’s death drew national headlines after her family said she died days after she was attacked in a school hallway by classmates in an assault that was recorded on student cell phones and spread via social media.

After her death, four of Adriana’s classmates were charged in connection with a hallway attack.

Adriana’s family alleged the school mishandled the videotaped attack, which lasted less than a minute, according to footage shared with NJ Advance Media.

Since then, Central Regional officials — who are also facing an unrelated lawsuit related to another student allegedly assaulted at school — have been under increased scrutiny. The former superintendent, Triantafillos Parlapanides, resigned in February after he allegedly disclosed personal information about Adriana’s family and health history in emails to reporters at a news publication.

In the weeks following Adriana’s death, dozens of students, alumni and parents came forward with their own stories of alleged bullying in the Central Regional School District.

Many of the allegations involve cyber bullying, including harassing messages, videos and photographs shared widely on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Some students said they also knew of social media pages set up to highlight videos of school fights at Central Regional.

Under the new cell phone policy, Central Regional’s middle school students will be required to place their cell phones in cell phone pockets available in classrooms, Corbett, the district superintendent, previously said. The phones will remain in the storage pockets until the end of class and students can no longer take their cell phones to the bathroom during class time.

In the high school, students can keep their phones in class if they are turned off and put away or they can put them in cell phone pockets during instruction time, Corbett said.

Many other school districts in New Jersey have similar policies or have used cell phone storage devices in class, including locking neoprene pouches. Some parents have objected to the cell phone rules, saying their children will not be able to get to their phones if there is an emergency.

Searching student phones, laptops or other personal property for evidence that a student is violating school rules is legal. But, the New Jersey School Boards Association advises officials to “exercise discretion in deciding to conduct a search.”

“Search and seizure are intrusive acts and care should be taken to evaluate whether or not the circumstances of the policy violation make it necessary,” according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Search and seizure is considered a “high grade” response to alleged violations of a code of student conduct. The New Jersey School Boards Association advises that “whenever possible, less intrusive steps or lower ‘grade’ responses should be implemented to give the student the opportunity to cooperate before the student or his or her property is searched.”

New Jersey law currently makes wide allowances for these types of searches, experts say. But, studies show students of color may face disproportionately high rates and severity of punishment compared to their white peers.

In late August, New Jersey’s attorney general and acting state education commissioner released guidance to schools on disciplining students without discriminating against them.

“From kindergarten to high school classrooms, Latinx/e and Black students face disproportionate discipline for the same actions committed by their white peers,” state Attorney General Matthew Platkin said. “And nationally, LGBTQ+ students are nearly twice as likely to be suspended from school as non-LGBTQ+ students.”

Black students make up 15.5 percent of the state’s student body, but account for 29.8 percent of schools’ referrals to law enforcement and 28.9 percent of arrests in schools, according to data on disparities in discipline.

Some critics are concerned that giving school officials the right to look through a students’ cell phone could lead to larger problems.

“There is a broader issue of continuing to erode the expectation of privacy for students in the aim of school safety,” said Johnson, the ACLU’s policy counsel.

But, others argue schools must do more to battle bullying and violence in schools.

School districts in New Jersey reported 30,568 incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons, substance use, and harassment, intimidation and bullying in the 2021-22 school year, according to the latest data from the state Department of Education.

Central Regional announced a series of initiatives to evaluate and improve the district’s approach to bullying in response to outrage over Adriana’s death and other allegations of school violence.

The initiatives included: organizing a steering committee of parents and community leaders to evaluate and update the school’s approach to bullying and other issues; bringing in an outside group to examine district policies and response to crises; and reviewing the district’s cell phone policy.

Additional initiatives that were planned included: establishing a toll-free hotline operated by an outside party for students to call anonymously; arranging guest speakers for student assemblies focused on avoiding and preventing risky behaviors; and arranging for education and information sessions for parents to help them better understand bullying, harassment and other issues impacting students.

The Central Regional school district also announced plans to continue training staff and parents to recognize potential problems and to improve communications with the community.

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