SALT LAKE CITY — Keeping tabs on what children and teenagers are doing and saying is hard enough for parents — let alone school teachers and administrators.
But when it comes to maintaining a safe learning environment, school officials say they try to balance the privacy of individual students with the safety of all.
Currently, students at Alpine School District have "no expectation of privacy in association with the use of the Internet," while they're using school computers. That's typical of districts statewide, but a new policy at Alpine would extend that provision to personal devices like cell phones and MP3 players that have Internet capabilities.
That means if a teacher or administrator thinks a student is doing something online that breaks school rules or the law, they'll be able to look at the phone to verify.
"Typically, there's sort of a continuum of a privacy standard," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the Utah State Office of Education. "The things that are school property are less protected. ... When you get into things like the student's personal things they carry with them ... they have some expectation of privacy."
Objects like lockers, school computers and desks are pretty much fair game to be searched by teachers, since those items are owned by schools. But backpacks, pants pockets and cars are considered personal, and an official must have a good reason to look around, Lear said.
"What you have to be looking for is pretty serious and pretty likely to be concealed," she said.
Smartphones, laptops and iPods — things students bring to and from school that can serve both a personal and educational purpose — are causing districts and parents to figure out where they stand when it comes to privacy and safety. As more and more students bring more and more gadgets on campus, schools are having to cope with students accessing or sending inappropriate material while at school.
Many districts leave it up to individual schools to decide if cell phones can be used during class, or just in between classes and at lunch. Some ban them completely.
Christopher Williams, a spokesman for the Davis School District, said an administrator would probably need to believe the contents of a student's phone contained something very serious, bordering on criminal, before they would search it. In that case, they would likely turn the matter over to the police, he said.
"There's been no talk about limiting or monitoring student use of their own personal devices," he said.
A number of national court cases have set a precedent establishing that schools must have "reasonable suspicion" to search a student's property — but that's still a lower threshold than is needed by law enforcement.
"School officials don't need probable cause that the police do. ... When courts have to weigh student privacy versus school safety and student safety," Lear said, "the courts almost always are on the side of school safety."
Other cases, however, show searches need to be limited in scope. There is something that trumps even that precedent, however, and that's parent permission for search — something Alpine will require in order for students to use its wireless.
"Once the parents give permission, that sort of takes away the constitutional provision," Lear said.
Parents might give schools permission to perform drug tests on their kids, permission to have their children photographed by internal and external sources or permission to search a student's school computer history.
As more and more students bring more and more gadgets on campus, Alpine seems to be adjusting to embrace that technology.
By allowing students at participating schools to log onto the district's wireless Internet network using their personal devices, the district hopes to encourage online educational opportunities, said spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley. Those devices would need to be "registered" with the district in order to do so.
Students would agree to play by the district's rules and only view appropriate-for-school websites while the district would maintain the right to confiscate the student's device and view the Internet history. If the school board passes the measure next month, students and their parents will sign a release saying both parties allow and consent to such an agreement.
Bromley said there will be a process in place for dealing with breaches and teachers won't spend their days perusing student phones.
"Things aren't just going to randomly be checked," Bromley said. "The bottom line is there are some great, appropriate, educational things that can be done with the Internet. ... We just need to make sure that it's being used appropriately when someone is on school grounds."
JR Chambers, a student at Lehi High School, said he isn't a fan of the policy.
"It is kind of getting picky," he said. "They can't really control what you do on the phone. It's your phone. You have the rights."
Some parents, however, support the idea, since the district's wireless Internet has firewalls and blocked sites to help protect students.
"I definitely am for this policy," said Mija Garlick, a parent in the district. "I don't want them to be able to access inappropriate sites at all."
Bromley said the measure is all about balancing the benefits of the technology with its invariable distractions. The consequences of being searched when a student doesn't comply will help ensure the rules are being followed and an environment conducive to learning is maintained.
"We want to find a happy medium and utilize (technology) for the great education tool it can be," Bromley said.
Contributing: Sam Penrod