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Virginia Attorney General Says Teachers Can Take Students' Cell Phones, Read Texts

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FILE: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (AP)

Students in Virginia may want to think twice about texting in class.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, issued a legal opinion Wednesday ruling that not only can school officials seize students' cell phones and laptops, but they can also read their text messages if there is "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school."

Cuccinelli was responding to a request from Republican Delegate Robert Bell who wanted to know when principals or teachers can seize the devices to battle cyberbullying and how school officials can address "sexting," or sexual messages sent via text, without violating the state law themselves.

Cuccinelli said school officials should not share explicit materials "depicting minors with other school personnel, but rather that the material should be brought to the attention of the appropriate law enforcement agents."

If the official shows the images to anyone else, they can be charged with distributing child pornography.

Cuccinelli's opinion lacks the legal force of a court ruling and his past opinions have been challenged before. In August, Cuccinelli issued an opinion saying police across the state have the authority to ask about the immigration status of anyone they've stopped or arrested. The American Civil Liberties Union urged police to ignore Cuccinelli's guidance, saying it lacks any legal foundation and conjures constitutional conflicts.

No one has yet challenged Cuccinelli's latest opinion.

Cyberbullying "happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person," and it's a problem for nearly half of all U.S. teens, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.

It's increasingly being cited as a reason for suicide attempts, the third leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in the United States.

This year, 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi took his life after fellow students posted video of him engaged in sexual activity online. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after a classmate and friend's mother bullied her through a fake MySpace account.