Student's Columbine reference leads to expulsion hearing

Proposed bill would prohibit social networking sites in public schools, libraries

ILLINOIS -- A 17-year-old student at Plainfield South High School who referenced Columbine in a Xanga Web log entry faced an expulsion hearing last week, according to his lawyer.

Attorney Carl Buck said the Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 is expected to decide whether to expel the student at its June 12 meeting. If expelled, the student would be ineligible from attending any other public school in the state. He would be forced to attend alternative school or seek a private education for his senior year, Buck said.

The student served a 10-day suspension in early May for posting a blog on Xanga -- a community of online journals for individuals 13 and older -- that criticized school administrators for the expulsion of another student who had posted an untitled picture of a school in the district with flames superimposed on top, Buck said.

“The kids at Columbine did what they did because they were bullied,” read the blog, which was posted on May 2. “In my opinion you are the real threat here. None of us ever put in our xanga’s [sic] that they were going to kill or bring harm to any one [sic].”

In the blog entry, the student also makes reference to freedom of speech concerns and asks rhetorically, “Did you every stop to think this will start a community backlash?”

Buck said the student has received considerable support from students and community members. He called the case a “very straightforward” freedom of speech issue.

“His complaint is protected speech,” Buck said. “He did it at home, at a home computer, on a Web site he can’t access from school. It’s a personal activity. This is not an expulsion case.”

District spokeswoman Carla Erdey said she would not comment publicly on student disciplinary matters, but provided a written statement dated May 24 claiming the district does not

“monitor student Web sites or seek out online postings by its students.”

“However, when a posting creates a disturbance to the educational environment, or threatens the safety and security of students or staff members,” the statement said, “it is the responsibility of the school district to look into the matter.”

Buck attributed the district’s recent disciplinary actions against student bloggers to an attempt by administrators to catch up to growing technology.

“Technology is always going to be ahead of policy and how government handles technology,” he said.

Attempts to reconcile policy with technological growth are not limited to the local or state levels. On May 9, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that, if passed, would prohibit minors from visiting social networking Web sites on computers in public schools or libraries.

HR 5319 would require public schools to monitor students’ online activities as well as install technology that would block any social networking Web site or chat room that “may easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material.”

The bill has upset users who have created an online petition opposing banning social networking sites from public schools and libraries. The petition maintains that incidents involving sexual predators on MySpace are “exceptionally rare” and calls for more education instead of an outright ban.

“Banning social-networking Web sites and forums from public schools and libraries is not the answer,” the petition says.

“If Congress is really serious about protecting children, they should be giving public schools and libraries resources to offer safety courses every day of the week.”

The petition was created by a group calling itself “Friends of MySpace” on May 12 and had 450 signatures as of 4 p.m. Thursday.

In other technology news, a school district in Libertyville, Ill., amended its code of conduct last week to include the sentence: “Maintaining or being identified on a blog site which depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior will be considered a violation of this code.”

The new policy was added to the district’s code of conduct for students participating in athletic, fine arts and other student activities on May 29. Despite the policy change, district spokeswoman Mary Todoric said the district is not actively monitoring student blogs.

--by A.J. Bauer, SPLC staff writer

Illinois, news, Plainfield South High School