William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Andrew Mueller


On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, age nineteen, went to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle. He opened fire, killing seventeen students. His unspeakable actions culminated in an attack, which eclipsed the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre to become the deadliest school shooting at a high school in American history. In the immediate months following this still-recent tragedy, schools across the United States were flooded with “copycat” threats of violence. Terroristic threat charges levied against juveniles have likewise skyrocketed.

These recent events have resulted in new and burdensome pressures for schools and juveniles alike. In an age in which smart phones and social media are ubiquitous hallmarks of American youth culture, saturating nearly every grade level and socioeconomic stratum, schools must respond to the contemporary and evolving challenge of maintaining school safety amid threats prepared and delivered on smartphone accessible apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Law enforcement officials, at the behest of school officials whose chief concern is to prevent the next “Parkland,” appear to be addressing this issue aggressively and charging juveniles with more crimes than before. Whereas a search of a student’s locker, backpack, or notebook used to suffice, she now carries a smartphone capable of storing, transmitting, and accessing private information and ideas, which exist far beyond the physical form of the device itself. Even when students’ Fourth Amendment rights have been curtailed by a warrantless search of her belongings, rightly or wrongly, courts have been unwilling to tip the scales against school administrators—but smartphones complicate the matter.

This Comment promotes a compromise aimed at addressing two timely and related concerns: protecting students’ safety and defending students’ privacy. First, the Supreme Court should enunciate a new standard for searching students’ smartphones on school grounds. A new standard will provide clarity for school officials and students alike and will illuminate acceptable circumstances that warrant abridging students’ Fourth Amendment rights in the name of keeping schools safe. It will also make clear when searches of students’ smartphones become unreasonable and violative of the Constitution. Second, this Comment suggests one policy schools should adopt to best maintain school safety, curb threats, and protect students’ Fourth Amendment rights with respect to their smartphones. These proposals taken together will assist schools in addressing and curtailing smartphone-generated threats directed at students, faculty, and administrators, while simultaneously reducing the number of charges levied against juveniles in a post-Parkland America.