Safety trumps students’ technology rights

January 3, 2020

“Turn your WiFi off, or the school can track what you do.”

Students say this commonly at school because they feel a sense of mistrust regarding the school’s free WiFi and Chromebooks they provide. Many kids believe that getting all these perks is too good to be true, which leads them to make comments like the one above. 

The school rumor leads to questions about students’ privacy rights when it comes to technology and the school district. In fact, many holes exist in students’ knowledge of their rights. For example, did you know that the school can go through your Chromebook or any other activity done on a school account at any given time? 

Students need to understand their rights—and where they are limited—in order to protect their constitutional rights, namely the first (freedom of speech and expression) and the fourth (search and seizure). 

Through an interview with the North Star, Dr. David Gundlach, the district’s technology director, and Mr. Robert Summers, the district’s technology infrastructure and services manager, explained information regarding student’s privacy rights with Chromebooks and personal devices. This information is stated in the student handbook, but not many students are aware of it.

When it comes to Chromebooks and students’ privacy rights, the district has full rights to search, seize, and investigate all activities done on the Chromebook. Students should only use them for school-related—and appropriate—online activities.   

Any activity done on the Chromebooks can be viewed without permission by the school in the name of keeping school safe. This rule also applies to any activity done on students’ school accounts too, such as their Gmail regardless of which device or where they access it. Activity ranging from sent emails to search history can all be viewed without protest. The school district does not need to notify the student if they are searching through their history.

However, the school district cannot view a student’s personal chat that was done on social media from the Chromebook as special rules apply to those apps.

Although these guidelines apply, the only way students have knowledge of their privacy rights is if they choose to go looking for it through the district handbook which can be found on the district website. However, access to this handbook is quite difficult to get because it is not on the district website. When asked if the district had ever done a waiver clearly stating students’ privacy rights, they responses no, but that they should consider the suggestion for the future. 

Thus, the rumor “Turn your WiFi off, or the school can track what you do” is both true and false. Any public WiFi can track someone’s activity, not just the school. For instance, when you sign in at Starbucks, McDonald’s, the public library, or at a hotel, you resign your right to privacy on that WiFi. However, the only information public areas get is the IP Address of the device, not the owner of the personal device. 

In fact, many devices have been connected to the school public WiFi, making it hard to track individuals.


“There have been 80,000 phones on the school WiFi. It is difficult to track one particular student’s activity,” Dr. Gundlach. 

All in all, the school can track a student’s activity done on the WiFi. However, it is difficult and time consuming for the district to track down to see who did what. Therefore, the district does not track students’ activity done on the WiFi unless they urgently need to. 

The school WiFi and Chromebooks are not the only concerns that students have. Students also have concerns about their rights with their personal devices. 

Dr. Gundlach and Mr. Summers had answers to concerns about rights when it came to personal devices in the school building and on the WiFi. 

If the school has a suspicion about a student’s phone usage, students cannot stop administrators from seizing and searching their phone.

“I don’t think [students can stop a school official from searching their phones if they have suspicion],” Gundlach said. 

If an administrator is suspicious of a student’s activity, especially on his phone, the administrator has the full right to take the student’s phone and look through the messages. The administrator does not need probable cause.

“We don’t need probable cause like law enforcement does,” Gundlach said. 

However, many students may argue, “I don’t have to give them my phone; it is my own personal property”. 

This is false. 

According to Gundlach, if a student makes that statement and refuses to hand over their phone, it is an admission to guilt, and the student will suffer consequences. If the student does hand over his phone, and the school administrator finds something, he or she can take it to the school police officer and that is where the law gets involved with a student’s case.

The school cannot get involved with everything involving students’ personal device use, though. For example, if a student is cyberbullying someone outside of school and not during school hours, the school cannot get involved.

The only way the school can get involved with such issues is if the event took place during school hours or gets back into the school. If the events take place outside of school and the victim can prove that it is disrupting his or her education, then the school can get involved and look through the messages. 

“The need for a safe place takes your rights away” is present at school on a certain level. The school does implement many rules for technology. However, not many students are aware of it.  The district hopes to come up with a plan to help students become more aware of their rights with technology, 

“What we probably need to do is obviously a better job of redirecting you guys to the handbook and your rights” Gundlach. 

Furthermore, Gundlach hopes to implement a new plan where kids know that they do not have an expectation to privacy when it comes to their devices,

“The usage of these devices is something we need to hit each year. And we do to some degree, but we obviously need to hit it harder so kids realize you don’t have an expectation of privacy” Gundlach.

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