Georgia high school students tracked down using subpoena

GEORGIA — Two students faced a school disciplinary hearing this week after local police subpoenaed Internet and phone companies to track them down for sexually explicit information they posted about fellow classmates online.

North Oconee High School officials and the Oconee County sheriff’s office had been working to identify the students since early September, when the comments were first posted anonymously on the Web site using a computer off school grounds.

“[The gossip] crossed the line,” said North Oconee High School Principal John Osborne. “I have been working for 22 years and I have never seen anything like what was written on that blog.”

School officials refused to comment on the outcome of the Oct. 17 hearing because the students are juveniles.

After the blog was posted, Osborne said some students sought counseling while others missed school days, resulting in what he referred to as a “tumultuous couple of days.”

Osborne said he sought help from Lt. David Kilpatrick, of the Oconee County sheriff’s office, who subpoenaed telephone company BellSouth, and to identify the two 15-year-old female students who Osborne said created the “major disruption” in school.

Though the students were not criminally charged, the police subpoenaed the information from the companies and turned it over to the school.

Osborne said the magnitude of the disruption in school was a breach of the school’s conduct code, and “anything from the community perspective that lends itself to the school can be dealt with by the school.”

“When I come into the building and I have students in the counseling office over things posted that were not accurate, that’s when I get involved,” he said.

While the police said the students could have been criminally charged, the principal emphasized that the students would be punished in school.

“We kept in mind the whole time we weren’t dealing with criminals; we were dealing with kids,” Osborne said.

Student Press Law Center Consulting Attorney Mike Hiestand said subpoena power exists only for specific reasons.

“Unless [the police] had probable cause to think that a crime had been committed, using subpoena powers would be, in this case, highly unusual,” he said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE) has posted several blogs on its Web site that have warned against administrators extending their authority outside of school.

In a June 2006 FIRE blog, Program Officer Tara Sweeny wrote, “It looks like the future of campus discipline will involve administrators patrolling the Internet to crack down on students who drink alcohol, use foul language, and make fun of teachers. I see many more cases to come.”

Representatives from FIRE declined to comment because the students are in high school, and the organization focuses on higher education.

This is the first instance in which the police used a subpoena to obtain information for an investigation at North Oconee High School, Osborne said. But Osborne also said he has no reservations about using a subpoena again.

“I would [use a subpoena] if I needed to,” Osborne said.

Osborne said parents of the two students and administrators support the outcome of the hearing and that he hopes this situation serves as a lesson to make sure things do not “get out of hand” again.

By Karla Yeh, SPLC staff writer