Arkansas Supreme Court upholds school officials’ confiscation of student’s cell phone
The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that a teacher and principal who confiscated and retained a student’s cell phone did not violate the student’s rights under either state or federal law. Nancy Adams, a teacher at Sylvan Hills High School (SHHS), learned that one of her students, Anthony Koch, had a cell phone in the classroom in violation of Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD)’s student handbook. Pursuant to PCSSD’s disciplinary regulations, Adams confiscated the phone. Before turning it over to her, Koch asked to remove the phone’s SIM card on which personal information was stored. Adams denied the request and Koch handed over the phone. The phone was then given to Principal Danny Ebbs for storage. Koch subsequently demanded the phone be returned, but the phone remained in PCSSD’s possession for two weeks pursuant to its policy. Koch filed suit against Adams and Ebbs in state court. The suit alleged that Adam’s wrongful taking of his cell phone constituted conversion and trespass to chattels (suits alleging deprivation of , or interference with, personal property). In addition, Koch alleged the unlawful taking of private property without due process. The trial court dismissed Koch’s claims.
The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the lower court. Because the trial court considered matters outside the pleadings in granting the motion to dismiss, the supreme court treated the motion as one for summary judgment. It noted that summary judgment is appropriate when there are no issues of material fact. The court found that Koch’s argument was essentially that “any ‘taking’ by state actors requires a state law expressly authorizing such a taking and that due process must be provided.” He contended that because state law does not specifically authorize school officials to seize students’ cell phones, SHHS officials exceeded their authority when they confiscated Koch’s phone. The court concluded, based on long-standing legal principle, that it could not consider Koch’s argument because he failed to cite authority to support it.
The court also rejected Koch’s argument that state law only provides for suspension or dismissal as possible punishments for a cell phone violation; therefore, confiscation is not permitted. The supreme court found that the state law cited by Koch was “plainly not exhaustive with respect to potential penalties for violating school policies.” “If the School District were permitted to impose only penalties that were expressly mentioned in the statute, as suggested by Koch, the word “including” in [the law] would be rendered superfluous.” In addition, it found without merit Koch’s contention that there other “less restrictive” means of enforcing the cell phone ban. It stressed that the supreme court “has long held that in Arkansas, ‘broad discretion is vested in the board of directors of each school district in the matter of directing the operation of the schools’ and courts have ‘no power to interfere with such boards in the exercise of that discretion unless there is a clear abuse of it.’” The supreme court, likewise, dismissed Koch’s due process claim on the grounds the he had produced no authority to support his “underdeveloped” argument that he had the requisite property interest in possessing a cell phone at school to trigger due process rights.
Koch v. Adams, No. 09-829 (Ark. Mar. 18, 2010)
[Editor’s Note: In May 2007, A state trial court in New York upheld the New York City Department of Education’s policy prohibiting students from bringing cell phones to school without permission. The lawsuit was brought in 2006 by parents who charged that the policy violates students’ constitutional rights. The suit argued that a ban on use, not possession, of cell phones in school would be sufficient and appropriate, but that the outright ban lacked a rational basis and violated parents’ and children’s rights under state and federal constitutions to communicate with each other. The court noted that there is no state or federal “constitutional right to bear cell phones,” and found that the Department’s ban did not unlawfully interfere with student-parent communication. A summary of the decision is available below.]
NSBA School Law pages on Price v. New York City Bd. of Educ.