Is It Legal for Schools to Confiscate Cell Phones?

Published March 17, 2018
teacher confiscating phones from students

When a student acts up in class or otherwise violates school policy, a teacher or other school official may confiscate the student's cell phone as a disciplinary act similar to getting the student to stand in the corner or stay after class for detention. Many students and parents may wonder, however, whether the school actually has the legal right to take a phone away from a student in the first place.

Taking Away a Student's Cell Phone

Just as there are many advantages to allowing cell phones in school, there are just as many potential pitfalls and downsides. They can be distracting in the classroom, and students may be tempted to use them to cheat on tests. Even though cell phones are considered private property, teachers generally can take cell phones away from students as an act of discipline.

The specific laws will vary from state to state, and potentially even from county to county, but most school districts are given the right to create their own policies regarding student conduct and discipline within certain limitations. Typical cell phone policies enacted by schools may vary, but the option for teachers to confiscate cell phones when rules are violated is very common.

Some school policies may allow teachers to keep the phones for the duration of class, others until the end of the school day. In some instances, schools may even keep the phone for a week or more. The law tends to side with schools in deciding this is reasonable disciplinary action.

Searching Through Phone Contents

While it is generally not illegal for a teacher or a school to confiscate a phone from a student who has violated school policy, the student generally still retains privacy rights as they relate to the contents of the phone. The school can restrict phone usage but if a school official asks a student to look through their phone, the student can choose to refuse even if he or she has broken school rules.

The two main exceptions in California when a student's phone may be searched without his or her permission are:

  • In an emergency situation "involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person [that] requires access to the electronic device information"
  • When a judge-issued search warrant is issued wherein there is "probable cause" the phone contains evidence of a crime

Even in the case of the latter, the school itself does not have the right to search through a student's phone. Instead, the search must be conducted by "duly sworn law enforcement officers." The search must be specific to the crime being investigated.

Specific laws and circumstances may vary, however. Under Florida Statute 1006.09, school officials have the authority to confiscate and search through students' phones (without first notifying a parent or guardian) if there is "reasonable suspicion" the student has "prohibited or illegally possessed items." Notably, the statute makes no specific reference to electronic devices and has thus been applied very broadly.

School Policies and Contracts

Some schools provide students with a handbook at the beginning of the year that outlines policies and expectations. In some cases, the schools then require students to take the handbooks home so both the students and their parents (or guardians) can sign it, acknowledging they have read and understand its contents. Among these rules may be a policy governing cell phone usage.

However, a "contract" signed only by a minor and not in the presence of their parent or guardian is typically not legally binding. If a school wishes to enforce certain rules and regulations, they are advised against using the word "contract."

Cell Phones in the Classroom

As technology continues to advance and society adapts to its omnipresence, more and more parents are choosing to give their children a cell phone at a progressively younger age. If cell phone usage by students is disruptive to the classroom environment, teachers usually have the authority to confiscate the device for a period.

Is It Legal for Schools to Confiscate Cell Phones?