Law will allow seizure of phones

JODY O'CALLAGHAN AND SOPHIE SPEER
Last updated 05:00 08/04/2013
Kate Gear, a  Taradale High School student, has done a science project on cyber-bullying.
JOHN COWPLAND/Fairfax NZ

DOUBTS ABOUT CHANGES: Kate Gear, a Taradale High School student, has done a science project on cyber-bullying.

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Schools may soon be able to seize pupils' smartphones and search through their contents for evidence of cyber-bullying.

Most principals are welcoming the proposed law change, but others in the sector fear it could damage the vital relationship schools have with pupils and their parents.

"We don't want to be policemen. That's not our job," Post Primary Teachers' Association president Angela Roberts said, while also welcoming the proposals. "We want to be teachers, and we want to have a strong relationship with our kids."

The Education Amendment Bill, due to be reported back to Parliament within the next month, will include increased powers to seize pupils' cellphones and laptops to search for dangerous messages written on social media websites and in text messages.

Principals and the Ministry of Education see the changes as a positive step to curb bullying, but the Human Rights Commission has advised that the rules need to be clear to avoid schools impinging on pupils' property rights.

Napier pupil Kate Gear, 14, who won a national scholarship for her cyber-bullying science fair project, doubted the changes would have much impact, as the bullying usually happened outside school. "When they are at home, they take their laptops into the bedroom without parents knowing."

Her project found cyber-bullying was more prevalent among girls than boys, and at higher-decile schools, since they often had more access to technology.

She had seen friends fall victim to "awful" online bullying. "Especially people my age, they're not really aware of it and how they're participating in it."

She wanted to see more laws, teachers made aware of risks, and to ensure that pupils could speak up about cyber-bullying concerns.

Hutt Valley High School principal Ross Sinclair agreed that forcing a pupil to surrender property could risk damaging the amicable relationship schools needed with pupils and parents.

"Most schools would be reluctant to interfere with core property rights where the student was actively resisting."

Students "very seldom" refused to surrender property.

Former Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh said the changes were supported by principals, teachers and parents, as well as the ministry.

"There are a lot of good advances in technology, but this is the dark side and it needs to be tackled. Its effects range from sleepless nights through to self-harm and suicidal thoughts."

Ms Roberts, while expressing reservations about the effects of the changes on teacher-pupil relationships, said the increased power to seize items was generally a step in the right direction.

"If this is something that helps us keep kids safe . . . it's really good."

The proposed changes stopped short of allowing schools to search pupils' bags, but the PPTA wanted that right too, she said.

Most schools had rules in place - including ensuring there was more than one adult in the room during a search, and instructing pupils to empty their bags rather than have a teacher do it.

Heretaunga College principal Bruce Hart said cyber-bullying was the most common form of school bullying.

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"Any capacity to look at what's on a person's phone . . . and track down bullies would be well received."

WHAT THE BILL SAYS:

If a teacher has reasonable grounds to believe a pupil has an item that is likely to endanger the safety of any person, or detrimentally affect the learning environment, the teacher may require the pupil to produce and surrender the item.

If the item is on an electronic device, the teacher may require the pupil to reveal the item or surrender the device on which the item is stored.

Teachers will not be permitted to use physical force to search pupils or their bags, or to use a dog for the purpose of that search.

A teacher may retain the item for a reasonable period or dispose of the item if appropriate.

If pupils refuse to surrender items, teachers can discipline them.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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