After punishing student for critical tweet, N.J. school district agrees to change social media policy

NEW JERSEY — A school district in New Jersey agreed to inform its students that it monitors social media accounts after a student sued in federal court when school administrators suspended her for criticizing the principal on Twitter.

Under Sterling High School District’s new school policy and student handbook, administrators may monitor student discussions on Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets and may punish students for discussions that cause a “substantial disruption at the school,” according to the settlement the Student Press Law Center obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. The district also agreed to pay $9,000 in attorney fees to the student, who at the time was a senior at Sterling High School in Somerdale, New Jersey.

“The school thought that they could control a student even when she was not at school, and in fact was sitting in her own bedroom, in her own house, talking to people she knew on Twitter,” said Jerry Tanenbaum, the student’s attorney. “It is hard in today’s society to know where to draw the lines sometimes, but that’s what these cases are about.”

On Jan. 7, the student, who was identified as a 17-year-old student with the initials H.W., was upset when arrangements for her to be picked up from school were changed. While in the school hallway, the student got into an argument with her mother on her cellphone, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on March 14.

When a teacher intervened during the phone call, the student was reported to the principal for violating the institution’s cellphone policy, for cursing, and for disrespecting teachers. She was suspended for two days. In response, the student’s mother spoke with the vice principal, and believed the suspension was withdrawn.

That evening, the student talked with three or four friends on Twitter, at least two of whom did not attend the same school. She complained the principal had punished her although she had not “done anything wrong,” and called the principal a “pussy ass bitch.”

The student also asked if her friends wanted to “smoke” with her before school the next day, but nobody accepted.

She did not smoke before school the next day, according to the complaint, and attended school believing the suspension had been lifted. In the meantime, school administrators examined her publicly accessible Twitter account without notifying the student or her mother. At the end of the day, the principal reinstituted her two-day suspension.

At a January 13 meeting Superintendent Jack McCulley and Principal Mark Napoleon confronted the student and her mother about the statements she made on Twitter, and “berated” her for what he called “defamatory” posts. The next day, McCulley wrote a letter to the student’s mother and said the student was barred from the senior prom, the senior class trip, participating in the school’s graduation ceremony and any other “school sponsored activity.” The student would also be required to submit to a drug test, according to the letter.

When Tanenbaum filed the complaint, he called for the district to revise its policies that facilitated the “unconstitutional intrusion” on the student’s constitutional rights and to make clear the administration does not have the authority to “regulate, discipline, detain or search students based on their constitutionally protected, off-campus, non-school event speech that does not cause a substantial disruption at the school.”

Brett Gorman, the school district’s attorney, declined to comment.

According to the complaint, punishing the student for the off-campus speech was a violation of the First Amendment because the speech did not cause a “substantial disruption” at school. School administrators also discriminated against the student, the complaint argues, because she is diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and bipolar disorder, and because of these disabilities, the student’s interactions with authority could be “characterized as rude or disrespectful.”

“American citizens like H.W. do not shed their Constitutional rights of free speech, nor their right to be free of illegal discrimination, merely because they attend school,” Tanenbaum wrote in the complaint.

According to the settlement, which was reached in April and memorialized in a July 29 dismissal order by U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman, the school district agreed to modify its school policy and student handbook within 120 days after the agreement was reached. The student was allowed to attend the the senior class trip and the graduation ceremony.

“I think what we did was help one child who found herself in that unfortunate circumstance, and we were able to make things easier for her,” Tanenbaum said. “In terms of precedent going forward, I would hope people learn things about what the law is and maybe give second thoughts to certain behaviors.”

By Mark Keierleber, SPLC staff writer. Contact Keierleber by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.

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