Fourteen-year old Samantha Negrete was called to the office of Vice Principal Bryan Toutant at North Middle School in Washington and required her to give up her Facebook password so he could get access to a photo posted on another student's account, in an effort to investigate an alleged case of bullying. Negrete was not suspected of involvement in the alleged incident. She gave up her password because she was concerned the Vice Principal would be angry with her if she did not comply.
When I read the story on The Daily Dot, I was livid. All Americans, including children, are protected by the Fourth Amendment, though as my friend, attorney Brian Cuban pointed out recently (which prompted me to edit this post), children do not have equal protection under first and fourth amendments per the SCOTUS. In the case of the fourth amendment, schools may use "reasonable suspicion" and not "probable cause" when searching school premises.
That said, the question becomes did the school have reasonable suspicion here? Negrete was not suspected of any involvement in this case. The school simply needed access to the suspected student's facebook page and knew they could get it through Negrete's page. Also, why didn't the school access the photo via the suspected student's page directly? Is it possible that the student and/or her parent denied the school access and the school could not force them to comply? Thus they went to another student who didn't know her rights and did comply out of fear. I will add that even if they had accessed the photo through the suspected student's page directly, I still believe that that students parents should have been present before the student handed over access to any personal account.
So, while the same fourth amendment protection the rest of us enjoy may not necessarily apply to students on school grounds (thanks Brian!), I stick with my stance that the school had no right to access Negrete's facebook page as there was no reasonable suspicion. In addition, the parents should have been contacted and present. Because they are minors and unaware of their rights, we must do even more to protect children because they are incapable of doing so themselves. We can safely assume Samantha Negrete had no idea, at the time this happened, that she had some rights in this situation.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing is happening more often in the public schools and I keep shaking my head asking where in hell is the common sense in the school system. But soon after I ask the question, I remind myself it shouldn't surprise any of us, for this is the same school system that removed the ability of teachers and administrators to make decisions on a case-by-case basis by enacting zero tolerance years ago. It's the same public school system that suspends kindergarteners for saying "bang, bang" while playing Cowboys and Indians on the playground and has suspended students for bringing key chains to school with one-inch chains, violating school policy on chains (because as we all know, one-inch chains have, for years, been the weapon of choice for most elementary and middle-schoolers in rumbles).
Since it's apparent the school system in this country is going to hell in a handbasket and we can't rely on administration to make common sense decisions, the only way to prevent blatant violations of students Constitutional rights from happening in the future is for parents to educate their children on those rights. Just as children are taught never to talk to strangers and never get in the car with anyone they don't know, they also need to be taught that they should never submit to being questioned about their participation in any potentially criminal activity, or any personal, non school-related activities without their parents present. Any school official who denies the child's request to have a parent present when they are being questioned (whether it's a criminal activity or not), should be punished.
In the meantime, I hope the school does the smart thing and fires the Vice Principal. Termination of employment may seem pretty extreme but this is a public school, where children are supposed to be safe and protected by school officials, not bullied and intimidated by them. This kind of behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Perhaps the schools should enact their own zero tolerance policies on themselves and maybe we'd see less of this kind of nonsense.