Kay: Schools should have to get court order for student passwords

A state lawmaker from the metro-east is pushing legislation that he says will make it more difficult for schools to acquire students’ passwords to their social media accounts.

Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, has filed legislation that would amend a state law that went into effect in January 2014. That original law states that a school “may request or require a student to provide a password or other related account information in order to gain access to the student’s account or profile on a social networking website.”

Kay has filed legislation, House Bill 4082, that would add three words — “upon court order” — to the existing law. Kay said the change would prevent schools from getting a student’s password unless a judge gives approval.

Kay believes his adjustment to the law would allow the courts to narrow any search a school might conduct, while still protecting students and teachers from possible violence.

"We all share this goal that children aren’t bullied online. What concerns us is giving over to schools the fundamental things that go over the line," he said.

The existing law requires school districts to notify parents in advance that they might seek students’ passwords. Last year, Triad Community Unit District 2 sent such a notice to parents. The district’s superintendent, Leigh Lewis, could not be reached for comment.

Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said his district has not made any attempts to obtain passwords from students.

“We really have not had situations, to my knowledge, where we’ve needed to get into students’ social networking sites,’ Dosier said.

He said students will instead show school personnel screenshots or provide access to messages they’ve received, containing bullying or threatening behavior.

“They’re assuming privacy they really don’t have ... most of the kids can point out who the students are (making online comments),” Dosier said.

Kay said his concerns include that the existing law allows schools to find private information that the school had “no reason to be involved with,” such as a family’s finances that might be discussed between a child and parents online.

Also, he said, “it really suggests the school is able and lawfully able to investigate anything a student does at any time.”

Kay said having to get a judge’s approval won’t impede schools’ efforts to prevent bullying or violence.

“It won’t take long to get a court order,” Kay said. “I see nothing wrong with a court order.”

Kay says he just wants to narrow the focus of any electronic search. The law, he says, allows school authorities to pursue tips about potential violence and to pursue that information online if necessary.

“And I don’t have a problem with that, if there is a problem,” he said. “But we do have the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, and I think we overlooked that.” Those amendments protect speech and provide equal protection under laws.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the state’s American Civil Liberties Union, says Kay’s effort may be misguided.

"We’re a little vexed by Rep. Kay’s proposal, because it appears to interpret (the law) in a way that the sponsor and discussion did not contemplate," he said.

Yohnka says the original law provides only that schools alert parents that the school may request entry to a student’s electronic life. The parents may deny the request, he says.

“There’s no penalty (for refusing to turn over a password). There’s nothing that compels the student or the parent to turn it over, “Yohnka says.

“That’s not true,” Kay said. “That’s the gist of the law, that in certain circumstances the law is laid out to allow school authority to request the password.”

Neither Kay nor Yohnka knew of any cases so far where students were asked to turn over their passwords to school administrators.

“The school has a wide latitude when they’re at school or at school activities (to monitor student behavior),” Yohnka said. “But we have a mechanism to control young people when they’re outside of school. They’re called parents.”

Dosier, the superintendent at Belleville 201, said “a lot of parents” monitor their children’s social media sites.

“Quite a few times parents have come in with their kids in the morning and met administrators to report something,” Dosier said. “It’s not even the students involved, it’s someone who sees something on Instagram and Twitter, and students and their parents say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem right,’ and they report it.”

“I know that the law is a great tool, we just haven’t had to use it,” Dosier said.