CHARLOTTESVILLE — Zach King was all set for a solid final year of high school.
Captain of the football team and trying to improve his grades, the Eastern Hancock senior was hoping to graduate and join the military next year.
Now, he says, images on his old cell phone from two years ago are coming back to haunt him.
He’s been forced to leave school, and he worries other schools won’t accept him because of the mark on his record. Already, he’s been denied admission to another school, and a future that once was looking up now is in limbo.
King’s problems illustrate how easily a student’s reckless use of a cell phone can get him or her in trouble at school. The issue also presents a dilemma for school administrators, who must confront tricky legal questions about privacy and maintaining a learning environment free of damaging distractions.
King’s problem began with a video shot with a cell phone camera. Admittedly, it’s damning: The video shows him smoking on school property.
The video, which he says he doesn’t remember, was shot when he was a sophomore. He was using the phone of another student, who eventually took the phone back.
Two weeks ago, the other student took the phone to the principal. Making matters worse, the phone also contained photos of topless female students. King said those girls had sent him the photos of themselves and that they had not been shot on school property.
School officials, however, had seen enough: King, 17, said he was told to leave Eastern Hancock High School or he would be expelled from the school for the rest of the year.
King had been in trouble at school before, and that likely had something to do with the hard line officials took with him. Principal David Pfaff and Superintendent Randy Harris said they couldn’t comment on the discipline of a student, but EH’s student handbook states that “habitual offenders” can be removed from the school.
King acknowledged he had been suspended twice before. Also, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department was called to the school Monday afternoon because of a verbal dispute between King and the student who had turned over the cell phone. King said they have also been arguing over Twitter.
But the young man says he’s a different student now than he was two years ago. He maintains his punishment is too harsh.
“It’s not like I’ve done anything that bad (over the years),” King said. “There’s kids that are plenty worse than me that go there and get in trouble every day. This has been my first year in high school with all A’s and B’s. I’m trying to do things right. I’m just trying to keep up on my school work and raise my GPA before I graduate.”
Faced with Zach’s expulsion, Ben King took his son out of school before he could be expelled hoping they could get into another school.
The Kings, who live in Willow Branch, tried Greenfield-Central High School on Thursday, but administrators there turned him down after calling EH officials and hearing about his background, the Kings said. Friday morning, they were driving to Pendleton Heights High School to see whether he can attend classes there.
“It’s like, where can I put him?” Ben King said. “I took him out before he’d get into trouble he couldn’t get out of.”
Ben King said his son could finish high school with online courses, but he wants Zach to have the full high school experience.
Zach King said if he could go back in time, he would have never recorded the video. He wasn’t told whether the photos are related to the expulsion threat. He is not being criminally charged for possessing the photos, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.
Student discipline problems involving phones and social media are a growing trend across the state and nation, said David Emmert, attorney for the Indiana School Board Association.
Emmert said families are objecting that schools are violating rights of free speech, or that they are illegally searching and seizing property.
“As long as the school official had reasonable suspicion to believe the phone contained prohibited content while at school, then we could seize the phone and search it,” Emmert said in outlining the standard schools use to investigate inappropriate conduct.
Principals also aren’t required to accept transfer students. Even if the student were to move to another district, state law allows the school to deny enrollment if the student had been expelled or withdrew to avoid expulsion.
Students seem to be learning that they can face criminal charges for sharing sexually explicit photos on their phones, Emmert said. That has been a big problem over the past couple of years, even in some cases involving child protective services.
“It’s gone down considerably in the last year or two,” Emmert said. “Even good families were reported to child services. Schools are educating kids better, and kids are getting smarter.”
The King case also comes as schools have become more lenient in permitting cell phone use during school hours. Eastern Hancock has revised its social media and cell phone policy in recent years to keep up with trends. The school allows students to use their cell phones during the lunch hour, for example.
This spring administrators announced that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter could be used during school hours for educational purposes.
Still, Harris said, administrators everywhere are dealing with difficult discipline problems.
“When it comes to social media, where is the line that we can punish because it happened in the school, or where is the line that we can’t punish?” Harris said. “My guess is probably every school is dealing with this issue in one way or another right now.”