OREGON — An Oregon High School may be backing down after it suspended at least 20 students earlier this month after they retweeted or, in some cases, favorited a Twitter post.
The tweet, posted by an anonymous “Confessions” account that acts as a hub for individuals to share secrets and gossip, stated that a McKay High School teacher “always flirts with her students.” More than 50 Twitter accounts have retweeted the post, and more than 70 have favorited it.
The school initially announced that it was punishing the students because the tweet constituted cyberbullying.
“Acts of hazing, harassment, sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, cyberbullying and menacing will not be tolerated by student to student, staff to student, or student to staff,” reads a section of the Salem-Keizer School District’s student “rights and responsibilities” handbook.
School officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but have told local news organizations there is the potential some of the punishments could be expunged. Salem’s Statesman Journal reported that administrators are meeting with students and their parents individually to discuss wiping the infractions from records.
“It’s possible that all 20 of them could have it expunged,” Jay Remy, a spokesman for the district, told the newspaper. “We can’t talk about a specific student’s record. It’s not one big announcement or one fell swoop, but they’ll contact and talk to each of the parents and work through it with each individual kid.”
“The eventual outcome is very likely it would be all 20 of them,” Remy added.
The ACLU of Oregon has said the school violated students’ freedom of speech and urged the district to expunge the suspensions from students’ records, said Dave Fidanque, the organization’s executive director.
“In this particular case, the speech occurred off-campus, not during school hours,” Fidanque said.
The ACLU believes this is a clear violation of students’ constitutional rights, citing the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which established that schools can only enforce restrictions only if speech substantially interferes with the learning environment or infringes on the legal rights of others.
The organization has always encouraged school officials to deal with “harmful” or “offensive” speech by educating students, as opposed to punishing them, Fidanque said.
“Unfortunately, too often school officials go straight to punishment in situations like this, or straight to censorship in student news articles they don’t like,” Fidanque said.
Speech can cause “real pain,” however, and there are instances when it needs to be “corrected,” Fidanque said.
“We believe strongly that talking with students should always be the first thing that school officials do,” Fidanque said. While it’s important for overly offensive behavior to stop, “it’s most important that the people engaging in those expressions understand the impact of their speech,” Fidanque said.
Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said that the school’s response to the tweet was “over-the-top.” Given that situation doesn’t seem to be an apparent threat to the school environment, Patchin suggested that requiring the students write a letter of apology to the teacher could have been a better way to handle the situation.
“The determination would be if the online speech or content interferes with the learning environment at school,” Patchin said. “Did the initial tweet disrupt the learning environment significantly, and did the retweets contribute to that?”
Patchin said retweeting and favoriting could, in some instances, be considered cyberbullying.
“It’s all about what behavior led to ‘harm’ in the individual,” Patchin said. “Most people don’t use the term cyberbullying … among adults. … It could be considered harassment if someone was retweeting in a way that’s threatening or harassing or intimidating.”
Patchin also suggested that school itself perhaps caused a significant disruption at the school, which it meant to prevent.
“We could debate whether or not it was free speech, but it’s a disruption now,” Patchin said. “One wonders if the administration’s response created that additional disruption.”
Many schools are still wrestling with where to draw the line between speech and harassment, Patchin said.
Situations like the one out of McKay High School are heavily publicized and create a distorted perception of how schools, on the whole, are handling cyberbullying, however, Patchin said.
“Given that these kinds of cases are so rare, I think, on balance, most schools are getting it right,” Patchin said.
By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.