More fallout from Facebook. This developing case out of Douglas County re-inforces the problems to schools from student postings on Facebook. In this case, the middle school took strong action, but I wonder if the actions will hold up if there are court challenges.
Where the school might have crossed a legal line is when the principal ordered the 13-year-old girl who called her teacher a pedophile online to log onto her Facebook account so the official could read the offending post and ensuing responses by her friends.
(Can someone explain why parents let young kids have Facebook pages? I still don’t get that as it seems ripe for abuse and problems.)
According to the new AJC story:
The investigation by Douglas County school officials resulted in the suspension of Alejandra Sosa and two other Chapel Hill Middle School students. They could face harsher penalties, including banishment to a school for children with behavior problems, when they go before a tribunal March 10.Alejandra told the AJC in an interview that included her mother Thursday that she regrets what she posted Feb. 17. She said she is drafting an apology to her teacher. She also said the school principal violated her privacy by taking her to a school library computer Monday and ordering her to log in to her Facebook account.
Principal Jolene Morris took over the keyboard and read what Alejandra and others had posted before ordering the student to delete the posts, Alejandra said.
Morris did not return a call and an e-mail seeking comment, and school system spokeswoman Karen Stroud said she did not know details about how school officials conducted their investigation.
Stroud did confirm that three students were suspended for making comments about a Chapel Hill teacher on Facebook, but had little else to say about the case. “Because of federal privacy protection law, we don’t talk about students,” Stroud said. “We certainly don’t talk about specific students and their disciplinary situations.”
Stroud referred a reporter to a portion of the school code that the children are accused of violating. It’s a “level one” offense, the worst possible: “Falsifying, misrepresenting, omitting, or erroneously reporting” allegations of inappropriate behavior by a school employee toward a student.
Alejandra said she created the Facebook post because she was mad at one of her teachers. When she got home, she said, she wrote on the social networking site that the man was a pedophile.
It was a joke, she said.
The joke got out of hand when school officials somehow learned of the comment and other comments made in response by other students. The middle schoolers, among other things, called the teacher a rapist and claimed he had bipolar disorder, according to Alejandra and the parents of two of the other children who posted Facebook comments.
I wrote recently about a similar California case in which a student was suspended for Facebook comments about his teacher. But that student won his legal challenge of the school suspension. (He wrote that his honors class biology teacher was “a fat ass who should stop eating fast food and is a douche bag.”)
The school charged the student with cyberbullying and suspended him, but the ACLU argued that the suspension violated the student’s free speech rights and cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, In that case, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” In its letter, the ACLU noted that the student posted the Facebook comments from his home computer outside of school.
Here is a New York Times story on another case where a school suspension was overruled by the court:
A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. But when the Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., disciplined Evan S. Cohen’s eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying, he took on the school district.
After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen’s daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.”
J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.
“What incensed me,” said Mr. Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, “was that these people were going to suspend my daughter for something that happened outside of school.” On behalf of his daughter, he sued.
Last November, Judge Stephen V. Wilson of Federal District Court found that the off-campus video could be linked to the school: J. C. told perhaps 10 students about it; the humiliated C. C. and her mother showed it to school officials; educators watched it and investigated.
But the legal test, he wrote in his 57-page decision, was whether J. C.’s video had caused the school “substantial” disruption. Judge Wilson ruled in favor of the young videographer, because the disruption was only minimal: administrators dealt with the matter quietly and before lunch recess.
This legal test comes from a 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which a school suspended students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
The court overturned the suspension, but crafted a balance between a school’s authority and a student’s freedom of expression. When a student’s speech interferes substantially with the school’s educational mission, a school can impose discipline.
The district had to pay J. C.’s costs and lawyers’ fees: $107,150.80.
Judge Wilson also threw in an aside that summarizes the conundrum that is adolescent development, acceptable civility and school authority.
The good intentions of the school notwithstanding, he wrote, it cannot discipline a student for speech, “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.”
The lesson Mr. Cohen hopes his daughter learns from the case is about the limits on governmental intrusion. “A girl came to school who was upset by something she saw on the Internet,” Mr. Cohen said in a telephone interview, “and these people had in their mind that they were going to do something about it. The school doesn’t have that kind of power. It’s up to the parents to discipline their child.”
He did chastise his daughter, saying, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”
He describes her video as “relentlessly juvenile,” but not an example of cyberbullying, which he said he did not condone. His daughter offered to remove it from YouTube. But Mr. Cohen keeps it posted, he said, “as a public service” so viewers can see “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog