News and Information
September 22, 2015

2016 High School Essay Contest Explores a School’s Right to Access Students’ Secrets

Is it OK for school administrators to go undercover or use false identities to dig out secret information from students’ social media pages? What if that information includes a test stolen from the school?

Those are the questions the Virginia State Bar (VSB) is asking students to address in its annual Law in Society essay competition. Essays are judged on how well they demonstrate the student’s understanding of the role and value of the legal system in everyday life. The purpose of the contest is to awaken an interest in law and appreciation of the US Constitution.

Virginia high school students age 19 or younger and enrolled in grades 9–12 or a home-school equivalent are eligible to submit an essay for a chance to win the competition and cash prizes. The contest is co-sponsored by the VSB Litigation Section and Communications Committee. The deadline for submissions is February 12, 2016.

The first place winner will receive $2,300 and the winning essay will be published on the VSB website. Other awards include $1,850 (second place), $1,350 (third place), and honorable mentions of $250 each. All winners receive a plaque and copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Awards will be presented in the spring at the winners’ schools.

This year’s competition examines a hypothetical situation at fictional Rocktown High School where it is apparent that students in an AP history class have somehow received advance information on test questions. A student tells teachers that the test was stolen and circulated among students in the class through a social media site. The school principal forces a student, under threat of suspension from school, to log into the secret site in front of her in order to confirm that the test questions were posted there. The principal then gets another student, again under the threat of suspension, to turn over his cell phone and show her text messages that include the names of the students who had advance knowledge of the test. All of the students involved are expelled from the school.

Contestants are asked to address whether a school administrator can demand that a student share her list of “friends” on a social media site; whether a school administrator or teacher can demand that a student surrender his or her cell phone and share private text messages; and whether there is a better course of action the school could take.

More information, including contest rules and last year’s winning essay, is posted at

Updated: Sep 22, 2015