Probing policies


High schools enacting policies to punish students for social networking sites created outside school





The skyrocketing popularity of social networking Web sites and blogs is prompting schools across the country to create discipline policies for students who publish what administrators deem as inappropriate content, even when its done outside of school grounds. 

Web sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com can offer a relaxed, online forum for students to vent about the usual adolescent quandaries ' classmates, school, homework and parents ' and those sites are often read by peers, and in some cases, school officials. MySpace expert and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Director of Media Studies Henry Jenkins said that social networks provide students with core skills to "become full participants in society."

But when the posted content sparks what school officials perceive as disruptive behavior in school, administrators see it as their duty to safeguard students. For some, establishing an Internet-use policy for outside of school has been the answer. Schools in Indiana, Washington state and New York City are among those that have recently created policies to regulate a student's Internet use in school and out. 

The Clark-Pleasant School District in Indiana enacted a "blogging" policy in October 2006 that prohibits students from accessing social networks from school as well as posting what the school deems as harmful or threatening content outside of school.

Jim White, the Clark-Pleasant School District's director of technology, said that the district is trying to be proactive in safeguarding the students from 'online bullying' or possible libel cases. 

"The policy gives students fair warning that they have responsibilities that come with freedom of speech," said White, who authored Clark-Pleasant's policy.

Although the policy is written specifically to regulate blogs, White said that it includes any electronic communication, whether it is a Web site, social network or online blogging community.

Tom Galovic, principal of Indiana's Whiteland Community High School in the Clark-Pleasant district, said his school's policy, which was passed unanimously by the school board on Oct. 17, has yet to be implemented district-wide. But Whiteland junior Andrea Beck said the policy is "a bit strict" and students "should be able to speak [their] mind."

Beck also said she understands part of the reason for the policy because she would not want a "post going around about me or someone I cared about."

Beck said she is active on the MySpace, Facebook and Xanga social networks, which she said she accesses from home. But, "If we are outside of school, the school shouldn't regulate what we post," Beck said.

But Galovic said he believes that the policies are how schools of the future will deal with Internet use.

"Schools always had the ability to regulate speech and actions that disrupt the educational environment," Galovic said.

Anita Ramasastry, a law professor at the University of Washington, said she believes that content that is posted on a social networking site that is not threatening or disruptive to the educational rights of other students is protected by the First Amendment. 

"When students post content on social networking sites outside of school, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to when a school may take action," Ramasastry said. 

These policies, though legally questionable, may help to clarify or supplement existing school conduct codes and other polices by dealing with a new phenomenon, Ramasastry said. 

In 2000, a federal court in Washington state ruled that a Web site created by a student outside of school "was entirely outside of the school's supervision or control." A federal appeals court reached a similar conclusion in a 1979 case involving an underground newspaper distributed off campus. 

"[T]he First Amendment forbids public school administrators and teachers from regulating the material to which a child is exposed after he leaves school each afternoon," that court said.

Ramasastry, also a columnist for Findlaw.com, wrote an article on May 1 specific to social networking and its impact in schools. In her column she said she believed that "[t]he First Amendment will protect many student postings, as long as they do not 'materially disrupt school activities' and as long as the students attend public, not private, schools"

Galovic said that his staff does not plan to play "cyber police," and that disruptions and threats "are brought to our attention usually by students." 

Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley and a MySpace researcher, said that cyber-bullying is the most common claim of Internet disruption in schools and is frequently the cause for the so-called blogging policies.

"Bullies don't stop bullying because they get punished, they get rougher but more invisible," Boyd said. 

Susan Stoltzfus, Washington's Northshore School District spokesperson, said the Seattle school does not punish outside-of-school Internet postings unless they are brought to the attention of administrators and viewed as disruptive of the school environment. Whether threats posted online are criminally prosecuted is left up to law enforcement, Stoltzfus said.

"We have to assume that all threats are credible," Stoltzfus said.

The district, which serves about 20,000 students, recently suspended one student for posting threats against the school, which required the school to be locked down, and another for creating a faux MySpace page in the name of a teacher.

Stoltzfus said that violation of the district's Internet policy falls under the school's code of conduct, and content posted from home can be considered a form of bullying or harassment in school even if it is never accused at school. A handbook outlining the policies is given to each student at the beginning of the school year. 

Stoltzfus argues that the policies are appropriate because the school has an educational interest at stake. 

"Posing as a teacher [on a Web site] and kids looking and posting on the site does qualify as disruption," Stoltzfus said. 

At Northshore and other Seattle public schools, students cannot logon to MySpace or other social networks from school computers. Kate Ellis, a senior at West Seattle High School, said the school has a program that filters all social networks from the system.

But she said "the hackers" at her school "can bypass anything."

Recently, the New York City Department of Education adopted a more strict punishment for students that post "material or literature containing a threat of violence, injury or harm (e.g., including posting such material on the Internet)" on and off campus.

The new provision, adopted for this school year, increases the possible punishment for violating the policy to a six- to 90-day suspension or possible expulsion.

Although the policy is defined to cover threats, Ramasastry warned of the slippery slope these policies create.

"Even if rules are not broken, the postings may still trigger administrators to want to take punitive action such as suspension, expulsion or putting a note on the student's record that may harm his or her chances of college admission, or on the job market." Ramasastry's Findlaw.com column said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union argued that the policy change was an infringement on students' First Amendment rights, citing the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Boyd, the MySpace researcher, also said teachers cannot expect students to behave the same way out of class as they would in class.

"It's like asking a teacher to act like they're in a classroom whenever they go out drinking with their friends," Boyd said. 

The New York City Department of Education's Internet policy went into effect with the new school year in September, and to date no serious incidents have been reported, said Jay Worona, the New York State School Board Association's general counsel.Worona also said that a school policy that allows suspension of students for content that does not contain threats is an issue "to be debated in court."

Ramasastry also said that the Internet is still an untested area and court litigation is important in setting precedent for future cases.

But Boyd said she believes education is the key to creating workable Internet policies. 

"To educate requires understanding, why youth are doing what they're doing," Boyd said. "Instead of punishing students for their extracurricular behavior, what would happen if teachers would learn from their acts?"


reports, Winter 2006-07