PALM HARBOR — The case touched on every student's worst nightmare.
A teacher catches someone texting during a test. The teacher confiscates the phone, per district policy. But then the teacher goes a step further, scanning through the student's personal messages.
Has the student's privacy been invaded?
On Thursday, it was determined that yes, the school district had gone too far. But the courtroom where the case was decided didn't look like any other.
For one thing, there was a chalkboard at one end. For another, the key players — judge, jury, lawyers, bailiff and court reporter — were all under age 16.
Carwise Middle School teacher Treasure Glenn's classroom became a courtroom as students in her second period debate class presided over a mock trial. The exercise was part of this year's Great American Teach-In, an annual event that puts volunteers from the community into classrooms to teach for the day.
Local attorney Diana Basta spent her day at Carwise, where she had students pretend they were presiding over the civil trial that pitted student plaintiff "Andrew Textalot" against the school board.
"I think you have to have a topic they're interested in," Glenn said. "It's a relevant topic, texting, and they love it."
Basta split the eighth graders into groups, giving each specific roles to play.
The plaintiffs argued "Mr. Teach" had invaded the student's privacy. The defendants testified Andrew broke school rules when he used his cell phone during class and that the teacher had a right to go through the phone because he suspected cheating, they said.
Finally, Basta turned the case over to the rest of the class, which acted as the jury.
"This is the most important role in the trial," Basta said before giving the students a quick summary of what the law says about privacy. She cautioned them that in civil cases, the defendant doesn't have to prove anything. She taught them a new phrase — "preponderance of the evidence."
It took the jury less than five minutes to come up with their decision — a guilty verdict.
For the majority of the student jurists, it came down to one thing: The teacher should have taken the phone, they said, but didn't have to go through the messages. Many also were unhappy with how the school district chose to punish Andrew, giving him a multiple-day suspension.
Basta, who's done the Teach-In for four years, said she's never sure what verdict the students will reach.
"We're always surprised," she said. "The last group said no, the district wasn't guilty."
Glenn said the interactive exercise helps the students soak up the mini law lesson easier.
The case took on a more real-life tone when, near the end of the exercise, the funky beat of a cell phone rang out from one corner of the room.
Everyone froze. A few moments later, a wave of nervous laughter drifted through the room.
Glenn, not wanting to make a big deal in front of guests, let the interruption slide. She shook her head.
"Whoever it is, just shut it off," she said. "Isn't that ironic?"