500 schools block popular teacher-rating site

Students can have an opinion about their teacher — they just can’t access it online.  

At least that’s the way more than 540 schools and school districts across the nation are responding to ratemyteachers.com, a Web site that gives students a forum to voice their opinions about teachers.  

Since its creation two years ago, schools and school districts have restricted on-campus computer access to the Web site, which provides students an opportunity to give feedback about more than 550,000 teachers at more than 30,000 schools, said Michael Hussy, a co-founder of ratemyteachers.com.

The site has prompted debates at many schools about the extent to which school administrators can limit students’ constitutionally protected right to free speech.

At the site, students can anonymously rate the clarity and helpfulness of a teacher using a five-point scale. Most students submit comments about their teacher as well.

About 1,800 high school student volunteers screen the submitted comments for threats, profanity, sexual references or for ones unrelated to a teacher’s performance. Visitors to the site can also “red-flag” a comment to have it reviewed by an adult. About 60 percent of the comments on ratemyteachers.com are positive, according to the Web site.

Comments on the Web site range from thankful praise to harsh criticism.  It’s the latter of the two that ratemyteachers.com receives complaints about, Hussey said. But he said it is against the site’s policy to remove an individual’s name or any comment unless it is deemed inappropriate by the site’s administrators.

Numerous teachers have threatened to file a lawsuit against the Web site, but no one has yet, Hussey said.

Earlier this year, an attorney with the New York State Unified Teachers researched taking legal action but found that since the Web site is based outside of the school and is comprised of opinions it is constitutionally protected, Hussey said.

Nevertheless, school districts are managing to find a way to take action against the Web site outside of the courtroom by blocking access to ratemyteachers.com from school computers.

School officials argue that blocking the site is not censoring students but rather preventing disruptive behavior from occurring at school. But some students are left questioning: where do administrators draw the line in determining whether student speech is disruptive or just unpopular?  

Allowing administrators to block access to Web sites where students can voice an opinion could have far-reaching implications. Educators could start to justify prohibiting students from voicing any opinion online by preventing access to high school newspaper editorials or participation in online opinion polls.  

Most school administrators are blocking access Web sites such as ratemyteachers.com before there is even a hint of disruption. 

In Virginia this fall, Loudoun County Public School officials decided to block the site after The Washington Post contacted them for a story about ratemyteachers.com, said Wayde Byard, public information officer for the district. After reviewing the site, the district decided to block it because it held no academic value, he said.

The district had not received any complaints from teachers about the site prior to the decision nor have any complaints been received from students who are now prevented from accessing the site, Byard said. The district also blocks other Web sites such as those which contain pornography, he said.

Although students with Internet service at home can access the site after school hours, students without home computers do not have the same opportunity, Hussey said.

Byard said the district cannot be held responsible for students who do not have access to the Internet outside of school. 

“It’s not a free speech issue for us,” Byard said. “Students are fine to say anything they want about teachers. We just don’t want students using computers inappropriately during school hours.”

reports, Winter 2003-04