The skyrocketing popularityof social networking Web sites and blogs is prompting schools across the countryto create discipline policies for students who publish what administrators deemas 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 readby peers, and in some cases, school officials. MySpace expert andMassachusetts Institute of Technology Director of Media Studies Henry Jenkinssaid that social networks provide students with core skills to “becomefull participants in society.”
But when the posted content sparkswhat school officials perceive as disruptive behavior in school, administratorssee it as their duty to safeguard students. For some, establishing anInternet-use policy for outside of school has been the answer. Schoolsin Indiana, Washington state and New York City are among those that haverecently created policies to regulate a student’s Internet use in schooland out.
The Clark-Pleasant School District in Indiana enacted a “blogging” policy in October 2006 that prohibits students fromaccessing social networks from school as well as posting what the school deemsas harmful or threatening content outside of school.
Jim White, theClark-Pleasant School District’s director of technology, said that thedistrict is trying to be proactive in safeguarding the students from’online bullying’ or possible libel cases.
“The policygives students fair warning that they have responsibilities that come withfreedom of speech,” said White, who authored Clark-Pleasant’spolicy.
Although the policy is written specifically to regulate blogs,White said that it includes any electronic communication, whether it is a Website, social network or online blogging community.
Tom Galovic, principalof Indiana’s Whiteland Community High School in the Clark-Pleasantdistrict, said his school’s policy, which was passed unanimously by theschool board on Oct. 17, has yet to be implemented district-wide. ButWhiteland junior Andrea Beck said the policy is “a bit strict” andstudents “should be able to speak [their] mind.”
Beck alsosaid she understands part of the reason for the policy because she would notwant a “post going around about me or someone I caredabout.”
Beck said she is active on the MySpace, Facebook and Xangasocial networks, which she said she accesses from home. But, “Ifwe are outside of school, the school shouldn’t regulate what wepost,” Beck said.
But Galovic said he believes that the policiesare how schools of the future will deal with Internet use.
“Schoolsalways had the ability to regulate speech and actions that disrupt theeducational environment,” Galovic said.
Anita Ramasastry, a lawprofessor at the University of Washington, said she believes that content thatis posted on a social networking site that is not threatening or disruptive tothe educational rights of other students is protected by the First Amendment.
“When students post content on social networking sites outside ofschool, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to when a school may takeaction,” Ramasastry said.
These policies, though legallyquestionable, may help to clarify or supplement existing school conduct codesand other polices by dealing with a new phenomenon, Ramasastry said.
In2000, a federal court in Washington state ruled that a Web site created by astudent outside of school “was entirely outside of the school’ssupervision or control.” A federal appeals court reached a similarconclusion in a 1979 case involving an underground newspaper distributed offcampus.
“[T]he First Amendment forbids public school administrators andteachers from regulating the material to which a child is exposed after heleaves school each afternoon,” that court said.
Ramasastry, also acolumnist for Findlaw.com, wrote an article on May 1 specific to socialnetworking and its impact in schools. In her column she said shebelieved 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 broughtto our attention usually by students.”
Danah Boyd, a doctoralstudent at the University of California at Berkeley and a MySpace researcher,said that cyber-bullying is the most common claim of Internet disruption inschools and is frequently the cause for the so-called bloggingpolicies.
“Bullies don’t stop bullying because they getpunished, 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 postingsunless they are brought to the attention of administrators and viewed asdisruptive of the school environment. Whether threats posted online arecriminally prosecuted is left up to law enforcement, Stoltzfussaid.
“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, whichrequired the school to be locked down, and another for creating a faux MySpacepage in the name of a teacher.
Stoltzfus said that violation of thedistrict’s Internet policy falls under the school’s code of conduct,and content posted from home can be considered a form of bullying or harassmentin school even if it is never accused at school. A handbook outlining thepolicies is given to each student at the beginning of the school year.
Stoltzfus argues that the policies are appropriate because the school has aneducational interest at stake.
“Posing as a teacher [on a Website] and kids looking and posting on the site does qualify asdisruption,” Stoltzfus said.
At Northshore and other Seattlepublic schools, students cannot logon to MySpace or other social networks fromschool computers. Kate Ellis, a senior at West Seattle High School, saidthe school has a program that filters all social networks from thesystem.
But she said “the hackers” at her school “canbypass anything.”
Recently, the New York City Department ofEducation 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 offcampus.
The new provision, adopted for this school year, increases thepossible punishment for violating the policy to a six- to 90-day suspension orpossible expulsion.
Although the policy is defined to cover threats,Ramasastry warned of the slippery slope these policies create.
“Even ifrules are not broken, the postings may still trigger administrators to want totake punitive action such as suspension, expulsion or putting a note on thestudent’s record that may harm his or her chances of college admission, oron the job market.” Ramasastry’s Findlaw.com column said.
TheNew York Civil Liberties Union argued that the policy change was an infringementon 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 atthe schoolhouse gate.”
Boyd, the MySpace researcher, also saidteachers cannot expect students to behave the same way out of class as theywould in class.
“It’s like asking a teacher to act likethey’re in a classroom whenever they go out drinking with theirfriends,” Boyd said.
The New York City Department ofEducation’s Internet policy went into effect with the new school year inSeptember, and to date no serious incidents have been reported, said Jay Worona,the New York State School Board Association’s generalcounsel.Worona also said that a school policy that allows suspension ofstudents for content that does not contain threats is an issue “to bedebated in court.”
Ramasastry also said that the Internet is stillan untested area and court litigation is important in setting precedent forfuture cases.
But Boyd said she believes education is the key to creatingworkable Internet policies.
“To educate requires understanding,why youth are doing what they’re doing,” Boyd said. “Insteadof punishing students for their extracurricular behavior, what would happen ifteachers would learn from their acts?”