Washington eighth grader's Facebook illegally searched by administrator, ACLU contends

WASHINGTON — An eighth grader whose vice principal forced her to log into Facebook and allow him to view the site is asking her school district to apologize and reassign the administrator.

In a letter to the school district’s superintendent last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said the search of Samantha Negrete’s Facebook account by North Middle School Vice Principal Bryan Toutant amounted to an illegal search that has resulted in other students harassing Negrete.

On Feb. 28, Negrete was sent to Toutant’s office and instructed to “come around to his desk, kneel by his chair and log onto her Facebook account,” according to the ACLU’s letter. He told her he was seeking evidence that a fellow student was bullying. After searching, Toutant found and saved a photo and then told Negrete, “If you keep this secret, I will too,” the letter states.

That student who posted the photo was later disciplined, but it is unclear why. The ACLU letter contends the student was suspended from school for using a cell phone during school hours but not for bullying.

District spokeswoman Mary Waggoner declined to discuss the discipline but said in an email that Toutant investigated “what he understood to be cyberbullying done via a cell phone on school grounds during the school day.” Toutant searched Negrete’s Facebook account as part of his investigation, Waggoner said.

Waggoner said that she could not discuss whether the information gleaned from Negrete’s Facebook was a factor in the other student’s discipline.

The ACLU letter claims when Toutant later called down the student accused of cyberbullying, that student saw Negrete’s Facebook page open on the computer. Negrete now faces hostility from her peers and has received threatening emails for being a “snitch” and “tattletale,” after classmates learned of her involvement.

“This well-liked, model student now struggles to attend school,” the letter reads. “Her closest friends stopped talking to her.”

Sarah Dunne, ACLU Washington’s legal director, emphasized that Negrette was not being investigated for cyberbullying in any way and said the girl was “used” by Toutant. Dunne referred most questions about the incident to the group’s letter.

“We believe that it may be precisely because Samantha is a good student who follows rules and respects authority that Toutant thought he might be able to gain access to other students’ Facebook account through her,” the letter reads.

Washington Schools Risk Management Pool, a contracted insurance and risk management firm, conducted interviews this week with all parties involved in the incident, Waggoner said. Attorneys with the firm will write up a report that will be the basis of any change in the district’s policy or discipline of staff.

The company’s claims manager for Everett School District could not be reached for comment.

Waggoner said that social media privacy is a “new and evolving territory for schools,” and that the district would “welcome the clarity that may come” from the investigation.

“Our staff respond swiftly to all issues of threatened student safety,” Waggoner wrote. “In this case, the technicalities of cyber space and social media are evolving and changing. It is vital that we protect students’ safety and their rights.”

Negrete’s claims mirror an ACLU lawsuit in Minnesota in which a middle school student claims her school repeatedly disciplined her and ultimately demanded her account information. Teresa Nelson, the ACLU attorney representing the student, also said she thought her case was “the tip of the iceberg” when she talked with Student Press Law Center last September after a motion to dismiss was denied.

“With the advent of electronic media, I think you have a lot of schools wondering what they can do and overstepping their bounds,” Nelson said.

The ACLU is asking the school issue a formal public apology to Negrete, a letter of explanation to the student body that her Facebook was improperly searched and a draft policy on social media searches. It also asks that Toutant be removed from the school for the rest of the school year.

The letter promises to seek financial damages if the district does not comply with its demands.

“She should not be forced to suffer the consequences of Toutant’s misconduct, especially when she did absolutely nothing to provoke the conduct,” the letter states.

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.