ACLU Settles Student-Cell-Phone-Search Lawsuit With Northeast Pennsylvania School District

September 15, 2010

ACLU and PA School Board Association Working On Guidelines For School Administrators On Searching Students' Cell Phones

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced today that it has settled a lawsuit filed in May alleging that the Tunkhannock Area School District (Wyoming County) illegally searched a student's cell phone, punished her for storing semi-nude pictures of herself on the device, and then referred her case for criminal prosecution to the district attorney's office.  Under the settlement, the school district denied any liability or wrongdoing but agreed to pay the student and her lawyers $33,000 to resolve the dispute.  The student's claims against the District Attorney's Office were not settled and will proceed through litigation.

The student, identified only as N.N. in court papers to protect her privacy, was pleased that this part of the case had settled: "I hope this settlement will lead school officials in the future to consider whether they have valid grounds to search students' private text messages, emails and photos." 

N.N.'s lawyer, Witold Walczak, the ACLU of PA's Legal Director, also praised the settlement: "We're pleased that the school district resolved the dispute quickly and amicably, but much work remains to educate school officials across the country about the importance of respecting students' significant privacy interests in the contents of their cell phones."

The case began in January 2009 when a teacher confiscated the cell phone of N.N., a 17-year-old senior, for using the phone after homeroom began, a violation of school policy. Later that morning, the principal informed N.N. that he had found "explicit" photos stored on her cell phone, which he turned over to law enforcement. He then gave her a three day out-of-school suspension, which she served.

The photographs, which were not visible on the screen and required multiple steps to locate, were taken on the device's built-in camera and were never circulated to other students in the school. N.N. appeared fully covered in most of the photographs, although several showed her naked breasts and one indistinct image showed her standing upright while fully naked. The photographs were intended to be seen only by N.N.'s long-time boyfriend and herself.

The ACLU-PA hoped to use this case to help alert school officials across Pennsylvania to students' privacy rights in their cell phones.  Very little case law exists discussing student-cell-phone searches.  While the settlement forecloses a court ruling, the case has led the ACLU-PA to contact the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), which this week agreed to work with the ACLU towards crafting guidelines for teachers and school officials to help them better handle situations involving student cell phones and other electronic devices without unlawfully invading student privacy. Walczak noted that the goal was to prevent future violations of students' constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, will continue against former DA George Skumanick, who threatened to prosecute N.N.; Police Detective David Ide, who investigated and viewed the images; and Jeff Mitchell, the current Wyoming County District Attorney.

N.N. is represented by Walczak and Valerie Burch from the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  The case is N.N. v. Tunkhannock Area School District et al., 10-cv-01080-ARC.  More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found here: aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/nnvtunkhannockareaschooldi.htm

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