School cell-phone rules
Palo Alto middle schools prohibit the use of cell phones and cell cameras during the school day. The phones must be turned off (not on vibrate or silent) and out of sight. They also may not be used at school dances. Inappropriate use may result in school discipline and/or police involvement, per school handbooks. To possess a cell phone on campus at Terman, a student and parent must sign a contract form, kept on file in the main office.
At Gunn High School, use of a cell phone or cell camera is not permitted in the classroom without express consent from staff. Staff is authorized to confiscate the electronic device if a violation occurs and turn it in to the main office for collection at the end of the school day. Escalating disciplinary consequences and parent contact will result with repeated violations.
Palo Alto High School's policies employ a more general standard. If an electronic communication device is judged to be "disruptive" or "interfering with learning," it may be confiscated at the discretion of the teacher or other staff member.
Some parents and teachers interviewed by the Weekly argue there should be a "no cell use" policy at high schools as well as middle schools, to reduce the potential for disruption to learning and to promote the social and emotional benefits of a media-free zone.
School jurisdiction to discipline cyberbullying
A school's authority to suspend or recommend expulsion of a student derives from the California Education Code. For some types of misconduct, administrators are required to suspend (e.g., a physical fight on campus). In other situations administrators have discretion over the penalty. These instances can involve gray areas, leaving the administrator's decision to suspend or recommend expulsion potentially open to legal challenge from the disciplined student.
If a cyber-incident occurs on school computers or otherwise at school, during lunch periods or while traveling to and from school or a school-sponsored activity, then California Education Code section 48900(r) authorizes school officials to take disciplinary action if a student's bullying reaches a legal standard that is defined as "severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct" (including by electronic means) that threatens or harms another student or interferes with school activities. "Electronic means" covers content on Facebook pages, email, instant messaging, text messaging, mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, chat rooms, social networking, etc. To suspend, the administrator must find facts that support the "severe or pervasive" standard and also the requisite level of harm.
Recently enacted AB 1732 also allows schools to take disciplinary action against students who create online profiles impersonating others or setting up "burn pages" containing material intended to harm others.
More difficult jurisdictional issues arise if a cyberbullying incident occurs off-campus during non-school hours, unconnected to school activity. The law states that schools have disciplinary authority over students in such cases if the incident causes "a substantial disruption" on campus (or is reasonably foreseen to cause a substantial disruption).
According to Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's website, the Palo Alto school district's law firm, examples of substantial disruption include: administrators missing school activities in order to respond to a deluge of phone calls and parent complaints (but it must be more than administrators being pulled away from ordinary tasks) or sustained conversations about the incidents by several groups of students such that lesson plans or classroom direction from a teacher is substantially undermined.
In a key 2009 court case (J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District), involving a profane and insulting video (made after school hours) about a student and then posted on YouTube, a California federal court held that the school did not have jurisdiction to suspend the student who made the video because the school had not presented enough specific facts to show "substantial disruption." The court said "substantial disruption" goes beyond ordinary personality conflicts, hurt feelings or embarrassment that occurs among students.
A longer version of this article, along with a list of informative websites, is posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.