Calif. students lobby school board about controversial social media policy

CALIFORNIA — Students who spoke against their district’s controversial social media policy last night said some school board members were open to discussing changes, but the policy remains in effect.

The Lodi Unified School District’s newly implemented social networking policy allows for the punishment of students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities and who behave in a way the district deems “inappropriate” online.

Zach Denney, a staff writer for the Bear Creek High School student newspaper who attended the meeting Tuesday night, said the students aren’t sure that board members will actually be willing to work together and only feel that they really have one board member on their side.

“They offered to have us come in and work with them but we’re just being cautious right now,” Denney said, adding that he didn’t know how much support there was among board members for changing the policy.

Jacob Williams, the student newspaper’s opinion editor, spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting with some of his peers.

Williams said he read highlights from a personal statement at the meeting and gave the statement in full to the board’s president. Williams’ statement argues that the policy is too vague and would subject him to punishment because of his online support for gun rights and marriage equality.

“The district has decided that they are allowed to remove me from my extra-curriculars if they do not approve of my opinions,” Williams’ statement reads. “What vexes me most severely is that this contract is not a threat but an ultimatum: students must choose either their rights or their passions and personality. The district has made some foul errs in the past, but this time, they have gone way too far.”

Denney, Williams and a group of students opposing the policy have gotten more than 300 signatures on a petition demanding the policy be abandoned and are working to get more.

Board of Education member and board clerk George Neely said the district doesn’t want to infringe on students’ constitutional rights and that while controversy over the policy has blown up in the media, it didn’t need to. Neely said no one spoke against the policy when it was being considered on the agendas of two previous meetings.

“It really kind of amuses me how this has gone so big and there’s really nothing to it that couldn’t be fixed without having just come to the meeting and talked about it,” Neely said.

Though he thinks their efforts were “a little misguided,” Neely said he’s proud of the students for becoming involved.

The Bear Creek High School student newspaper published a story about the policy near the end of last school year, and many news outlets have covered the recent reactions to the policy, which is already in effect for the current school year.

The students have gotten backing from California State Sen. Leland Yee, who has authored legislation in the past supporting student rights and who defended protesting students and parents in a statement released Tuesday.

“While the problem of cyberbullying must be addressed, we must do so in a focused manner,” Yee wrote. “The policy of punishing students for saying anything deemed to be ‘inappropriate’ goes too far in restricting student speech. Policies regarding cyberbullying must be carefully and specifically written, and I encourage the Lodi Unified School District to take a more judicious approach.”

The next board of education meeting is scheduled for Aug. 20. Neely said any proposals to change the policy would have to be added to that meeting’s agenda.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.