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No More Classroom Paparazzi!

Court: Schools can ban cell phones.

Those of a certain age will doubtlessly remember Candid Camera, Allen Funt's classic TV show from the 1960s and '70s that used hidden cameras to film people's often embarrassing reactions to staged scenes.

These days it seems that every kid with a cell phone aspires to be a latter-day Funt, seeking instant fame on YouTube. Increasingly, they're using the classroom as their stage and unsuspecting teachers as their prey.

But can students get away with that? If not, what legal remedies are available to unplug these budding videographers? 

The courts are just now beginning to grapple with these issues, but this much is clear: Schools plainly have the right to ban cell phones and video cameras in class, and they can punish students who disobey these rules.

Take the case of Gregory Requa. With the help of two accomplices, the senior at Kentridge High School near Seattle surreptitiously videotaped a teacher in class. The footage depicted a student standing behind the teacher making pelvic thrusts in her general direction.

Later, the students added a graphic announcing "Caution, Booty Ahead," followed by an extended shot of the teacher's buttocks as she walked away from the camera and bent over, set to the rap song "Ms. New Booty."

Requa's video was then posted on YouTube. A local Seattle television station discovered it while investigating a story about students taping teachers and aired the footage on the nightly news.

After an investigation and hearing, school officials slapped Requa and his two cohorts with 40-day suspensions.

Requa then sued the school district, arguing that the punishment violated his First Amendment rights. Federal Judge Marsha Pechman had little trouble disposing of his lawsuit. Among other things, she ruled last year that the "lewd and offensive" video constituted "sexual harassment" in violation of district policy.

Schools need to maintain "a civil and respectful atmosphere toward teachers," she wrote. "[D]emeaning, derogatory, [and] sexually suggestive behavior toward an unsuspecting teacher in a classroom poses a disruption of that mission."

The judge also said the students were properly punished for violating a rule banning the use of "personal electronic devices" at school.

Which leads to the next question: Can school officials ban cell phones from school? Absolutely.

In the first case to address the issue, a New York appellate court last April upheld a broad rule adopted by the NYC Board of Education banning "cell phones" and other "communication devices" from school property.

The school board claimed the right to ban cell phones because they had been used for "cheating, sexual harassment, prank calls, and intimidation," as well as "to take pictures to harass others, including school personnel."

Parents challenged the ban in court, arguing that it interfered with their "parental rights" to raise their children. In particular, they stressed the compelling need to ensure the safety of their children by being able to communicate with them by phone both before and after school.

But the court held that the doctrine of "parental rights" does "not embrace a right to communicate with children by cell phone." While not unsympathetic to the parents, the court said the decision was properly made by school officials.  

—Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel

NEA: Schools should lay down rules for cell phones

 Student use of cell phones in class is a major headache for teachers. Delegates to the 2008 NEA Representative Assembly expressed their concern by adopting New Business Item 2008-67, which reads: "NEA recommends that schools develop regulations for the appropriate student use of cell phones and personal communications devices, as well as other electronic devices, during the school day. Such regulation will promote respect for privacy, intellectual integrity and a positive learning environment." As these court cases illustrate, NEA members would be well-served to urge their local school boards to adopt comprehensive rules to deal with this growing dilemma.


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