Commentary

Privatization of education undermines civil liberties for students and families

June 18, 2021 5:30 am

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

At least one private school in Nevada is searching family computers and using the information they find to shame students and parents into withdrawing, keeping thousands of dollars in tuition and fees in the process. This grotesque invasion of privacy leaves families with few options to ensure continuity in their child’s education. But this privacy invasion is also a product of our own making. As advocates continue to call for the privatization of public education, we are becoming more and more content with the loss of civil liberties in schools. 

Lake Mead Christian Academy in Henderson is a private institution. Recently staff at the school arbitrarily confiscated a student’s personal laptop and, without permission from the student or guardian, proceeded to search the computer over the course of two days. Text messages were allegedly discovered on the device that described consensual kissing between two female high school students. To be clear, the school has policies related to public displays of affection, but this was not a situation where the gym teacher caught two girls kissing under the bleachers — rather it was an overzealous staff member reading private text messages that backed up to a personal laptop. The school used this private information to coerce the parents and student into withdrawing from the school with mere weeks left in the school year. 

Even though the right to privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has clarified that several amendments create this right. The Fourth Amendment, for instance, prohibits police and other government agents (e.g., teachers) from searching our property without “probable cause.” Other amendments protect our freedom to make certain decisions about our bodies and our private lives without interference from the government — which includes public schools.

The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government can never deprive people in the United States of certain fundamental rights including the right to free speech and the due process of law. The Bill of Rights applies to students attending public schools, but it is not clearly applicable to children attending private institutions because they are not government actors, and the students are minors. 

Imagine for a moment that the text messages that had backed up to the confiscated laptop were messages between the child’s parents — private marital communications wholly unrelated to the student. Should a review of this personal device and these discreet messages be tolerated? Do you know, as you sit here reading this right now, that your text messages are not backing up to the computer your child uses for schoolwork? 

It is no secret that the Clark County School District is consistently at or near the bottom of every education-related ranking. Subject-matter proficiency is abysmal and test scores are consistently below average. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated these issues, plunging the ill-equipped District into a disheveled distance learning model that many say left their students even further behind. It is no wonder that parents in the Las Vegas Valley are willing to make substantial financial sacrifices in search of a quality education. 

Parents of children attending these private schools are being forced to contractually negate their own privacy rights and those of their children in the pursuit of a “superior” education. These parents are oftentimes unaware of the invasive practices the schools employ to ensure conformity. In a typical public school setting a student’s right to privacy extends to their personal belongings and unreasonable search and seizure is largely prohibited. Clearly there are exceptions schools may invoke to ensure the safety of the student population, but we are talking about two girls kissing here, not the next Columbine.

Of course, parents should be engaged in their child’s education and should be aware of the code of conduct at their child’s school. But it is ludicrous to suggest that a parent knowingly and willfully subjected their own private information to a search simply by giving their child a computer to use in class. Furthermore, it is unconscionable to suggest that a parent supplies a device to a child with the understanding that an unauthorized seizure of the computer could happen at any time for any reason and that an unauthorized search could be grounds to force their child to withdraw from the school. 

We have given private entities enormous power to levy our speech, influence our consumer behaviors, and infringe on individual freedoms. It is imperative that we find a way to balance our desire for quality schools with the erosion of privacy rights that results from the privatization of education. Given these schools will not protect our children from their own misguided policies, we should be focusing our attention on our public institutions to ensure equity in education and privacy in our own homes.

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Jen Shomshor
Jen Shomshor

Jen Shomshor is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada. She lives in Las Vegas.

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