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Law That Would Let Schools Search Students' Phones Fails, for Now

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 17, 2017 6:57 AM

A California law that would have let school administrators search students' phones and electronic devices without a warrant died in the state assembly on Wednesday, as California Assemblyman Jim Cooper pulled the legislation from committee.

The law, AB165, would have exempted students from protections against warrantless searches established in California's Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 2015. The legislation was intended to help schools deal with cyberbullying and other threats, its backers say, but received significant opposition from civil rights groups.

Opening the Door to School Cell Phone Searches

The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or CalECPA, is one of the nation's strongest privacy laws, limiting the state's access to individual's personal data. Under the law, the state must obtain a warrant and provide notice before accessing someone's electronic data. That doesn't just apply to law enforcement either -- schools, too, are covered.

AB165 sought to make it easier for schools to view students' electronic communications by repealing those protections, at least in the school environment. Introduced by Assemblyman Cooper in January, the law would end to application of CalECPA "to a local educational agency or an individual acting for or on behalf of a local educational agency."

The law could help schools combat bullying, cheating, and other school-house issues, according to supporters. "Administrators don't want to go willy-nilly looking at kids' phones but sometimes we have to," Laura Preston, a lobbyist with the Association of California School Administrators, said.

That raised concerns among student and civil rights advocates, who warned that AB165 could violate student's privacy and undermine the state privacy law generally. Nicole Ozer, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, described it as "really bad for kids and families."

"It would have opened up these millions of students to invasive searches," she explained. "There would have been no outside oversight, and no notice to parents and to students about the searches. There would be no safeguards of what was searched, how it was used, and how it was shared."

Back to the Drawing Board?

This might not be the last time we hear about the proposed law, though. It's backers are still planning on pursuing the legislation.

"We're making it a two-year bill," Preston told Courthouse News Service, "which means it's not going to be heard next week. But the conversations are going to continue."

"We need time to put in guard rails to make people feel better," she said.

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