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Cell Phones - Confiscation and Searches

Reviewed April 2022

There seems to be a lot of misinformation in the field about how and when schools may confiscate and search student cell phones. School officials certainly may confiscate and even search cell phones, but the extent to which that is true depends on the language in the school’s policies about student behavior.

A good policy informs students what is and what is not acceptable, and states possible consequences. Included as unacceptable uses could be the following:

  • Use of cell phone during class for any reason (or use of a cell phone for other than allowed purposes [e.g., using the calculator app in a math class])
  • Taking pictures in locker room
  • Taking any picture of another person for the purpose of ridiculing the other person (falling asleep, chewing food with mouth open…it doesn’t have to involve nudity)
  • Use of cell phone or any device to cheat
  • Use of cell phone or any device to harass another person

The consequences of unacceptable use could include notice of the following:

  • Device shall be confiscated
    • Duration
    • May be turned over to law enforcement
    • Subject to search
  • Other discipline (suspension from class/from activities)
  • Parents shall be informed
  • Law enforcement shall be informed where appropriate

A policy that merely prohibits “possession” of a cell phone at school only provides school officials with authority to seize the phone, not to search it. If a school’s policy lists unacceptable behavior and there is an allegation that a student has engaged in such misbehavior, a school official may search the phone. The search must be supported by reasonable suspicion at its start and must be reasonable in scope based on the alleged infraction.

Two final points:

  1. Always involve local law enforcement upfront (i.e., before searching through the phone), especially if the allegation involves pornography. This will prevent accidental destruction of evidence and will protect the school official from allegations that the school official “possessed” the pornography.
  2. Keep a drawer of batteries to thwart the resourceful lad or lass who takes the battery out before handing over the offending device.