G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
711 F.3d 623 (6th Cir. 2013)
28 March 2013
United States Constitution, Fourth Amendment (right to privacy, free from unwarranted search and seizures)
Kentucky Revised Statutes, Section 158.150 (law governing suspension and expulsion of a student from school)
Owensboro Public School District Code of Conduct (the Board of Education may expel a student upon the recommendation of the Superintendent)
G.C., a high school student, struggled with disciplinary problems. During his time in high school, he was disciplined several times for incidents such as using profanity in the classroom, leaving school grounds without permission, excessive tardiness, and fighting. G.C. had disclosed to school officials that he had used drugs and was disposed to anger and depression and on one occasion he told a school official that he was very upset and planned to take his life.
One day G.C. violated the school cell-phone policy and was caught texting in class. The teacher confiscated G.C.’s phone and turned the phone over to Assistant Principal Brown, who proceeded to read the text messages. She stated she read the messages to check that G.C. was not planning to hurt himself or someone else and if there was an issue he was discussing in the messages that she could help C.G. work through.
C.G. was subsequently expelled from school because of the texting incident and the other disciplinary issues. C.G. filed a lawsuit against the school alleging that the search of his phone amounted to a constitutional rights violation because Assistant Principal Brown did not possess the needed reasonable suspicion to conduct the search.
Issue and resolution:
Right to Privacy. Whether a school administrator may search the cellphone of a student who has behavioural and mental illness issues. The court ruled that background knowledge of bad behaviour and depressive tendencies of a student do not justify searching the student’s cellphone if the incident in question does not relate to the prior behaviour of the student.
The court noted that the Supreme Court of the United States has implemented a relaxed standard for searches in the school setting: the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a two part inquiry: first, one must consider whether the action was justified at its inception; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.
The court agreed with C.G.’s argument that the school officials had no reasonable grounds to suspect that a search of his phone would result in evidence of any improper activity. The court recognised that the general background knowledge of drug abuse or depressive tendencies allow a school official to search a student’s phone when a search would otherwise be unwarranted so long as circumstances indicated current drug abuse or danger from depression. Here, however, the court found that the school officials had no specific reason at the inception of the search of C.G.’s phone to believe that he was engaging in any unlawful activity or that he was contemplating injuring himself or another student, meaning that the search was unreasonable.
This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.