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Fairfield Schools' Web Policy Might Allow Searches

Students at Fairfield Warde and other Fairfield schools might face searches of their personal computers if a new Board of Education policy passes.
Students at Fairfield Warde and other Fairfield schools might face searches of their personal computers if a new Board of Education policy passes. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel (File)

FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Fairfield’s teachers and administrators soon might be able to search students’ personal computers and mobile devices, but not without cause, if the Board of Education goes through with its latest proposed policy.

The proposal would allow teachers and school staff to search student’s personal electronic devices, including laptops, tablets and cell phones, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the student is breaking the district’s rules for computer use.

Jennifer Maxon Kennelly, chair of the Board of Education’s Policy Committee, compared the provision to the district’s current rules for backpacks.

“In terms of privacy, this is already what is the practice of the school,” Kennelly said.

The Board of Education considered a stricter policy in October. That rule stated that students “should not have any expectation of personal privacy” with Internet-enabled devices they bring to school.

Dave McGuire, an attorney with the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to the school board warning that the policy might be unconstitutional. The Policy Committee rewrote the rules last fall with suggestions from the school board’s attorney.

The rewritten policy makes a distinction between town-owned computers and student’s personal devices. School computers and files stored on the town’s servers could be subject to a search at any time. Teachers would need a “reasonable suspicion” to search a student’s own device, and would have to limit their search to items related to that suspicion.

Some board members said Tuesday that the changes might not have gone far enough. One suggestion was to ensure that parents and principals were notified before any search to make sure students’ rights to privacy were respected.

“I am very wary that this could just take us down the wrong road," board member Perry Liu said. “I just think the language is too broad … I think it’s about protecting a person’s rights.”

Board member Tim Kery, however, warned that since students would be connecting to a school’s wireless network, the town needed to make sure that they were not at risk of exposing their computers to viruses through risky online behavior. The proposed policy would also hold parents responsible for the costs of repairing damage to a school’s network or servers because of virus downloads.

“It is important that our administrators have the ability to ensure that any device that’s going to be used on our network is not being used to degrade or damage our network,” Kery said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new policy at its regular meeting in February. The complete proposed policy is included with the latest board agenda, available online here .

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