Brave Students and Timely Tips: Texting Successfully Alerts Educators in Utah

Roy Utah: Utah girl credited with alerting officials over alleged school bombing plot

Via and

An appropriate follow-up to the previous post on anonymous tip lines is this report of a foiled plot to bomb a public school campus a few days ago.  It all began when a student received a text message from one of the suspected bombers that asked, “If I told you to stay home on a certain day, would you?”

And to everyone’s surprise and great relief, the student took the warning to the authorities.  At least three implications emerge from this event:

  1.  Educators become a valuable resource for school safety when they make themselves accessible to students in a manner that minimizes the anxieties of student who wish to approach them.  This is often spoken of as the “goodwill” factor in school safety.  It cannot be minimized.
  2.  Students are imminently capable of making mature decisions about people and situations that require intervention for the greater good of campus safety.  Educators are wise to promote campus safety in a manner that encourages students to take ownership for their role in protecting the campus climate.
  3. The profile of the so-called “rampage student” is inherently unreliable and rather dynamic across the spectrum of students.  Stereotypic thinking about students is as likely to be a catalyst to rage incidents as of angry behavior.  The safest campus is likely to be one in which student concerns and needs are individualized by properly trained educators.

Bullying and Anonymous Tips: Students Texting to Educators as First Alert

McLean Co., KY: McLean Co Schools now using texting to report bullying


Educators are implementing a new kind of anonymous tip line that allows students to send text messages about any issue without giving their names.  The approach shows great promise, because it shortens the time-line from incident to report to investigation.  There will be more developments reported on the texting strategy as legal challenges are raised about the uses to which the information is put by educators.  A few thoughts on this appear below.

The issue of liability, if any, for actions taken based on a tip will turn on concerns about the reliability of the texting tips.  In the informant cases, courts take a hard look at tips that come from questionable sources or have no corroboration.  Many of the rules have been forged outside the education context.  Despite this, the application of the rules to programs like “Crime Stoppers” and “Silent Observer” hotlines has been consistent and useful.

Information provided by an informant can serve as a basis for reasonable suspicion that a student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.  An anonymous tip can provide reasonable suspicion when it is placed in context with other information or events, so that the “totality of the circumstances” shows that the tip is reliable. (See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)). Such tips will support any search when it is reasonably related to the duty of educators to maintain a safe learning environment and not excessively intrusive.

Overall, the major advantage of the texting tipline is that it allows educators to use their broad supervisory and disciplinary authority to detain a student and investigate a tip without worrying about student rights of any kind.  This “detain and interrogate” authority in the response to an anonymous tip serves well the interest of educators to keep their campus safe.  As one court puts it, “[t]o allow minor students to challenge [such a] decision…as lacking articulable facts supporting reasonable suspicion would make a mockery of school discipline and order.”  (In re Randy G., 26 Cal. 4th 556, 28 P.3d 239, 245 (Cal. 2001)). Another court says of this, “when a school official stops a student to ask a question, it would appear that the student’s liberty has not been restrained over and above the limitations he or she already experiences by attending school”. (J.D. v. State, 920 So. 2d 117, 121 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 4th Dist. 2006)).  The U.S. Supreme Court has stated, on two occasions, that the reasonable expectation of privacy is reduced in public schools enough to support investigations of this nature without reasonable suspicion of any kind because the interest in maintaining safe schools is “compelling.”  (See Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995)).  (See also, Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, 843 (2002)).

As to reasonable suspicion, educators can effectively combine anonymous tips with their authority to search a student by remembering the following rules:

  •  a tip from an informant who has provided information in the past, and whose trustworthiness is proven or whose basis of knowledge is known, establishes enough of a factual predicate to meet the reasonable suspicion standard.
  •  the detailed nature of a tip weighs in favor of its accuracy.  A tip that specifies a particular student, in a particular place, at a particular time of day contains predictive information and meets the reasonable suspicion standard.
  •  receiving an informant’s information in-person provides enough elements of reliability” to create reasonable suspicion.
  •  an uncorroborated tip about the presence of weapons or explosives creates an emergency that justifies an immediate search.
  •  a school official can always stops a student to ask a question without worrying about the Fourth Amendment.





Keeping Up with the Transferring Student: The Duty to Share Information

DA Leone: Information Sharing Amongst Schools Vital to Public Safety

Via Arlington Patch

There is understandable frustration by many over the reluctance of educators to understand the new legal climate in which information may be shared to enhance campus safety.

Often the reluctance to consider how student record information might be used more effectively is based on a misconception of federal law.  The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC § 1232 and regulations at 34 CFR Part 99) imposes restrictions on the use of student records without parental consent.  FERPA is applicable to public and private schools that accept federal educational funding.  Since the 1970s, the FERPA rules have been amended by Congress and the USDOE to compliment disclosures of student information that further legitimate education interests.

It is essential that educators understand the new amendments that create both authority and a duty of educators to share information about new students who transfer into a school district with a history of misconduct.

The FERPA reform on this issue was implemented on January 8, 2009.  The new rules were designed to enhance campus safety.

Generally the rules clarify the conditions under which an educational agency or institution may disclose student information from an education record without the prior written consent of the parent. School officials may share information without prior written consent:

  • To other school officials, including teachers, within the school or school district. 34 CFR 99.31(a)(1);
  • To officials of another school, school system, or postsecondary institution where the student seeks or intends to enroll. 34 CFR 99.34; and
  • To teachers and school officials in other schools when the information concerns disciplinary action taken against the student for conduct. 34 CFR 99.36.

The most important amendment to the FERPA rules may be the change to the definition of “emergency.”   Under the emergency exception, educators may disclose to parents information that is deemed necessary to both place the community on notice and to enlist its aid in keeping students safe.  School officials under the new rules have the power to determine an emergency for themselves:

If an educational agency or institution determines that there is an articulable and significant threat to the health or safety of a student or other individual, it may disclose the information to any person, including parents, whose knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. CFR § 99.36

New Strategy for Improving School Safety: Removing All Lockers

Hall lockers? Some schools say no

Via USA Today

This is a difficult trend to understand, especially given the state of school safety legal reform.  Educators have a wide range of options available with the campus and the physical plant.  As a matter of law, school officials in every state have the power to preserve the physical plant and campus for the primary use to which it is dedicated.  Therefore, lockers belong to the school and may be searched.  Students have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the lockers.  When educators have a written policy that is communicated to the students that school lockers are the property of the school, periodic general inspections may be conducted at any time.  The power of educators to search lockers follows from the affirmative obligations of school authorities to supervise the children entrusted to their care and the consequent retention of control by them over the lockers through a written policy.  This right becomes a duty when there is a reasonable suspicion that school safety is threatened by the use of a locker by a student. Two states appear to give students a reasonable expectation of privacy in lockers.  See Florida Education Code Section 1006.09(9), and the Iowa decision in State v. Jones, 666 N.W.2d 142, 2003 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 134 (Iowa 2003).  However, these laws are insincere.  The Iowa courts permit school searches under the reasoning that the search of student lockers is not an intrusive type of search, given the nature of the school’s concerns of maintaining a safe and effective learning environment.  Florida law does not prohibit the use of metal detectors or dogs in the course of a search for illegally possessed substances or objects.

State and Federal Privacy Laws Complicate School Safety in Washington State School District

Student-privacy laws complicate schools’ ability to prevent attacks
Via: The Seattle Times

This story continues the myths surrounding state and federal student records privacy laws. Persistent misperceptions exist about the role of FERPA in the safe schools movement. This need not be. Every educator needs to understand FERPA and its impact on interagency collaboration—especially after Columbine. It is still true that FERPA remains focused on what Congress in 1974 saw as growing evidence of abuse of access to student records. Attracting specific concern were incidents of access to student records without parental notice or consent, lack of a consistent system for governing access to records by other agencies, and failure to disclose disciplinary information to parents. It is equally clear that FERPA provides a strict framework to deter abusive practices by conditioning the availability of federal funds to schools that comply with its regulations.

However, both Congress and the courts have clarified what constitutes a violation of FERPA’s privacy provisions. Congress has refined a list of the circumstances when disclosure is permitted without prior written consent. It includes disclosures that are made:

• To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena, 34 CFR 99.31(a)(9);

• In connection with a health or safety emergency, 34 CFR 99.31(a)(10);

• To provide “directory information” (student name, address, date of birth, dates of attendance, etc.), 34 CFR 99.37;

• To state and local officials in compliance with a state statute that requires or authorizes information sharing, 34 CFR 99.31(a)(5), 99.38;

• To provide information from the school’s law enforcement unit records file that is usually maintained by the SRO, 34 CFR 99.3, 99.8;

• To other school officials, including teachers, within the school or school district, 34 CFR 99.31(a)(1);

• To officials of another school, school system, or postsecondary institution where the student seeks or intends to enroll, 34 CFR 99.34; and

• To teachers and school officials in other schools when the information concerns disciplinary action taken against the student for conduct, 34 CFR 99.36.

A majority of States now permit or require school officials to share information when it is in the best interests of campus safety and child protection. It is not a matter of whether educators can share. Instead it is a matter of when, to whom, and under what circumstances. FERPA is simply not the impediment most think it to be.

As to HIPAA, it is difficult to conceive of a school district to which its privacy regulations apply. It simply does not control the question of records dissemination policies. See Joint Guidance on the Application of (FERPA) and (HIPAA) to Student Health Records.