The school can confiscate a cell phone if you violated phone usage policy, because schools have broad powers to set student conduct policies. Searching the phone is a separate matter: a search requires reasonable suspicion and the search has to be narrowly related to that suspicion. As long as there is an actual policy and a violation of the policy, there seems to be no limit on confiscating phones.
School authority over children in the US was historically justified by reference to the in loco parentis doctrine since State v. Pendergrass, 19 N.C. 365, granting school "the authority necessary for preserving discipline", which is "analogous to that which belongs to parents, and the authority of the teacher is regarded as a delegation of parental authority". More contemporary rulings on the question of school authority, again in the domain of
as articulated in Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 find that
the concept of parental delegation has been replaced by the view --
more consonant with compulsory education laws -- that the State itself
may impose such corporal punishment as is reasonably necessary "for
the proper education of the child and for the maintenance of group
In other words, the courts do not rely on the parental doctrine to justify school authority, instead they rely on what is reasonably necessary to achieve an end. Thus in New Jersey v. T.L.O, 469 U.S. 325, in loco parentis was rejected as a rationale for an unconstitutional search, reasoning
If school authorities are state actors for purposes of the
constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and due process, it
is difficult to understand why they should be deemed to be exercising
parental rather than public authority when conducting searches of
Instead, the court frames the test in terms of competing interests:
Against the child's interest in privacy must be set the substantial
interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in
the classroom and on school grounds.
Since school authority to confiscate cell phones does not rest on acting according to the wishes of the parent, it is irrelevant that the parent approves of the child's actions. They may take the phone away, but it is not because of in loco parentis, it's because of necessity. It does not matter whose property it is; and it is not theft, because the confiscation was lawful.
In loco parentis is not necessarily dead, see Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, where compulsory drug testing was justified, finding that
the Policy was undertaken in furtherance of the government's
responsibilities, under a public school system, as guardian and tutor
of children entrusted to its care...
when the government acts as guardian and tutor the relevant question
is whether the search is one that a reasonable guardian and tutor
It is not part of a school's remit to promulgate the drug-free life, so drug testing cannot be justified by appeal to necessity. Disciplinary matters are squarely within the scope of what is necessary for schools, so disciplinary questions don't need to rely on in loco parentis. In the Vernonia case, the court still finds that the state has limited reach to override the rights of children – parents still have much broader rights to restrict children than the state does. For the state, the matter has to reduce to a compelling state interest, whereas parental power isn't even subject to rational basis review.