The School Town of Munster is not the first school district to invoke the principle of "in loco parentis" when disciplining students who engage in what it considers unacceptable behavior such as sexting or sending provocative messages through a cellphone or electronic device.
The term in loco parentis is Latin for "in the place of a parent." It refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. It allows institutions such as colleges and schools to act in the best interests of students as they see fit, although drawing the line at what would be considered violations of students' civil liberties.
Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko said parents have complained to the district about its recent suspension of about a dozen students the district believed were involved in sexting. "But as long as we're being reasonable and within the guidelines of the written school board policy, the student handbook and we abide by the rules, we believe that we are on pretty firm ground," he said.
Sopko said cellphones were confiscated and a dozen students were suspended after school leaders learned about a sexting incident Friday. Munster schools' policy requires cellphones to be powered off during the school day. Under the in loco parentis philosophy, students whose cellphones are impounded give school administrators access to voicemail, text messages, call logs, picture galleries, memory cards and so on.
Sopko said he does not know if rumors that students from other schools were involved are true. "We haven't made that determination yet. It wouldn't surprise me because kids know each other from all over the county," he said Tuesday.
Sopko said the information has been turned over to the Munster Police Department to pursue charges.
Munster police Lt. Ed Strbjak said students are being interviewed, and no one has been charged. "It's still under investigation. We expect to talk to about 20 kids, most of them juveniles," he said.
Hobart attorney William Longer, who represents the School City of Hobart and is a Hobart city judge, said the concept of in loco parentis is appropriate for schools because they are charged with maintaining a safe environment for students for a significant number of hours each day.
"If they maintain the environment, they have to have the necessary authority to deal with students to do that," he said. "Policies vary from corporation to corporation, but in Hobart we make it clear that if a student chooses to use a wireless communication device on school property, they don't have the expectation of privacy."
Hobart's school district has a policy that allows students to bring their own device. Longer said the devices are there for educational purposes.
"Having said that, then it's clear that if you have something going on that's a violation of state law and could involve law enforcement, the device may be seized from the student. As far as searching a device, that's only done if there is a reasonable suspicion that a search is required," Longer said.
He also said the School City of Hobart spent a lot of time trying to come up with a policy balancing fairness to students and allowing them to bring the device to school. "It's an ongoing area of development as far as the law is concerned because it's relatively new," he said.
Crown Point attorney George Galanos said he believes parents should be called to school whenever a situation warrants official action like suspension or expulsion.
"These are minor children and they are not capable of providing that type of consent," he said. "I believe their parents should be there prior to being questioned or taking any kind of official action. I don't know in Munster if the students were given the opportunity to speak to their parents prior to confessing or speaking to administrators."
Galanos said parents should have been contacted before students gave administrators their cellphone password and they looked at the device. "The school will take the approach that we are there in place of the parents and we have that right, but it depends on the offense," he said.