Big Horn County School District staff: policy on use of personal devices violates civil rights

GREYBULL — Big Horn County School District No. 3 staff members say a proposed policy that would make any personal electronic devices that they use to conduct school business subject to a search is a violation of their civil rights.

The board of trustees passed the policy on first reading in August and was scheduled to give it a second reading on Sept. 8 but stopped short of doing so. The policy was tabled after the board received input from a group of teachers.

Supt. Mark Rose said in a follow-up interview that the district’s attorney, Tracy Copenhaver, suggested the policy and that it merely formalizes the district’s position, which has long discouraged the use of personal (non-district owned) computers, devices and technology, including cell phones.

The two key sentences in the proposed policy read as follows: “Staff who determine it necessary to use their personal cell phones are also encouraged to use apps or other software

which enables the message to be sent to the recipient as well as a school administrator, server or other device which can retain the communication in the school records.

“Employees who use their personal devices for district business (including but not limited to communicating with coworkers, students, parents or others regarding district business) consent to a search of their personal computer, devices or technology by district administrators for messages, information or data related to district business except where the communication was also delivered to a school administrator, server or other device where it can be reviewed by district administration.”

Ralph Wensky, president of the Greybull Education Association, asked the board to reject the policy, saying an overwhelming number of the approximately 70 staff members he contacted were “very concerned” about the unlimited ability to take and search their devices without a warrant.

In a letter to the board, Wensky said the policy “violates our civil rights, including but not limited to illegal search and seizure,” and that employees fear that the apps the district wants them to install on their phones would increase their exposure to potential fraud, identity theft and digital corruption through the enlarging of their cyber footprint.

The letter continued, “We believe there are legal channels in place through the justice system to address any concerns the district might have.”

If the policy were to be approved, Wensky said school employees would be reluctant to make themselves available via their personal devices after school hours, “even though they would like to,” and that it would greatly reduce the efficiency of classified staff in the carrying out of their tasks.

Wensky said staff members would not sign the accompanying Employee Acknowledgment and that they would be forced to, with great reluctance, discontinue using their personal electronic devices for any and all school district business during or after hours.

Several school employees followed with presentations of their own.

Lynn Forcella, the yearbook advisor and librarian at GHS, said, “It’s not like we feel we have anything to hide — we just feel like it’s an overreach into our privacy.”

She said she upgraded her home computer so she could work on the yearbook after regular school hours.

Wensky and Bob Campos, the district’s transportation supervisor, said not having cell phones would make communicating far more difficult on school-sponsored trips. Wensky takes his SkillsUSA kids to competitions around the state. 

“It’s so handy to have the bus driver’s cell number and for all the students to have my number,” he said.

Campos said cell phones are often times the only way that bus drivers can communicate with their base of operations. The radios on buses have limited range, he said. 

“I don’t know how we could function anywhere near as effectively as we do without them,” he said.

Rob Nuttall, a special education teacher at GES and assistant high school football coach, said the district benefits from teachers’ willingness to make themselves available outside of regular school hours.

“We’ve established an environment in Greybull Public Schools of, ‘It’s all about the kids’ ... above everything else. It’s not a necessity that we use our phones, nor is it an obligation that we have,” he said. “However, to be highly effective at our jobs, we need to establish those open lines of communication with parents to build a rapport so we can have effective IEP meetings and so we can build the best team that we can. With (this policy) being in the back of our heads, it’ll add some hesitancy to that.”

Jenna Schultz, the FFA advisor, had the last word, saying that teachers are “always connected,” including when school is not in session. “If it were to pass, you’d be doing our students a great disservice,” she said.

Rose provided more insights into the proposed policy in an interview Monday, emphasizing that no specific incidents were behind the push to approve the policy and that it’s simply a recommendation from the school district’s attorney.

Rose said the use of personal cell phones for school purposes is discouraged in the Professional Teaching Standards Board’s own code of conduct.

“It’s a practice we want to discourage,” he said. “And if they do it, we simply want them to do it with an app” that can be monitored by administrators.

As for the argument that there are legal channels already in place, Rose said that might be true when the offense rises to the level of a crime and police are involved. But when it doesn’t, administrators are limited in the amount of investigating they can do.

Rose said school district employees also need to realize that even without a policy that spells it out, any personal devices that they use for school purposes could still be searched under certain circumstances, such as in Freedom of Information Act requests.