Is a public school classroom a private space? That seems to be the assertion of school administrators after an 11-year-old student recorded a teacher bullying a student.
A St. Lucie County teacher has been fired after a student used her cellphone to record a teacher bullying another student.
The Samuel Gaines Academy student, 11-year-old- Brianna Cooper, is being praised by her peers. But, she’s still facing punishment from school leaders for recording the audio illegally.
WPTV legal expert Michelle Suskauer says it is illegal in Florida to record anyone without them knowing.
Florida’s two-party consent/wiretapping law is outdated and likely unconstitutional, but for now it stands. It also provides an exception for recording oral communications where the person speaking would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
A classroom, in a public school, would seem to be a place where no one would have an expectation of privacy. Administrators certainly go to lengths to assure their students that nothing they do while at the school is afforded any sort of expectation of privacy, what with random locker/vehicle/cell phone searches and monitoring of computer use. So, why would a teacher be granted an expectation of privacy for something said in a classroom?
Well, it’s not so much Florida’s law implicated here as much as it is the district’s policy on personal devices, even though the school allegedly referred to the recording as “illegal.” According to the policy, “wireless communication devices” may not be used to record anything on school grounds.
Inappropriate use includes, but is not limited to: (1) activation, display, manipulation, or inappropriate storage during prohibited times; (2) texting, phoning, or web browsing during prohibited times; (3) taping conversations, music, or other audio at any time; (4) photography or videography of any kind; and (5) any activity that could in any manner infringe upon the rights of other individuals, including but not limited to students, teachers, and staff members.
Now, using this policy to suspend a student who exposed teacher misconduct is just pure tone-deafness, which explains the district’s decision to quickly reverse the suspension. Not only that, but this “violation” doesn’t even carry with it the penalty of suspension.
Any disruptive, harassing, or other inappropriate use of a wireless communications device while under the School Board’s jurisdiction, shall be cause for disciplinary action under this heading, including confiscation of the device as contraband and, in the event of repeated or serious misuse, loss of the privilege to possess such a device on school property or while attending a school function.
So, the suspension makes even less sense than it would otherwise, given the school’s actual policy on cell phone use — something it seems to have (briefly) ignored in favor of deterring a student from exposing staff misconduct.
But there’s still a link to Florida’s outdated wiretapping law contained in the school policies. This sentence wraps up the paragraph on inappropriate use of cell phones.
The use of a wireless communications device shall be cause for disciplinary action and/or criminal penalties if the device is used in a criminal act.
At which point, we’re back to the question of privacy expectations. Certainly, most schools are quick to cite privacy laws when dealing with the release of student information. Anything to do with minors is inherently more sensitive than that of adults. Not that privacy concerns prevent schools from being as invasive as possible when dealing with their students, requiring signatures on policies that allow administrators to search students’ devices, lockers and vehicles for nearly any reason, as well as the offering of waivers to use photos and student information in news stories and school-produced materials.
But this school also forbids the recording of anything while on campus, even with a personal cell phone, granting an expectation of privacy that doesn’t actually exist under Florida law. Public schools are public and words uttered by educators and administrators in classrooms and assemblies (any place where it’s not “one-on-one”) are very much “public” by definition. Florida’s wiretapping law shouldn’t apply. Unfortunately, school policies take precedent in situations like these, and this district has pretty much assured that the bullying that schools seem so concerned about will only be handled with hearsay, as any recording evidence to back up allegations is forbidden.
Kudos to the school for quickly realizing suspending the student was the wrong way to handle this, but the policies it forces students to follow are just going to make it harder for administrators to deal with misbehaving students and teachers.