"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More Warnings About Social Media and Kids

The new Missouri Law that prohibits teacher/student contact through social media is getting plenty of airtime lately. That's good for parents to know as their kids are about to head back to school. Today I will share another cautionary tale about social media, and kids, and schools that parents should pay attention to as they (and their students) are signing or reviewing various forms for school in the next few weeks.

In the Berkley County Schools in West Virginia, a case is making its way through the appellate court system brought by the parents of the student in Musselman High School in that district against the school district. The case is about a student who created a page on a social media site that was used to ridicule and harass another student and the school's response to this action. I'll jump to the end and tell you that the case was brought by the parents of the student who created the page because they believed the school had no right to punish their daughter for something she did outside the school and that her actions were protected by the first amendment.

This is from Appellate Judge Niemeyer's opinion on the case:
The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that they were authorized to punish Kowalski because her webpage was "created for the purpose of inviting others to indulge in disruptive and hateful conduct," which caused an "in-school disruption. Reviewing the summary judgment record de novo, we conclude that in the circumstances of this case, the School District's imposition of sanctions was permissible.
The specifics of the case read like a made for tv movie about the social viciousness of high school teenagers. (warning: explicit language is quoted)
"On December 1, 2005, Kara Kowalski, who was then a 12th grade student at Musselman High School in the Berkeley County School District, returned home from school and, using her home computer, created a discussion group webpage on MySpace.com with the heading 'S.A.S.H.'... Kowalski claimed in her deposition that 'S.A.S.H.' was an acronym for 'Students Against Sluts Herpes,' but a classmate, Ray Parsons, stated that it was an acronym for 'Students Against Shay's Herpes,' referring to another Musselman High School Student, Shay N., who was the main subject of discussion on the webpage....After creating the group, Kowalski invited approximately 100 people on her MySpace 'friends' list to join the group. MySpace discussion groups allow registered users to post and respond to text, comments, and photographs in an interactive fashion. Approximately two dozen Musselman High School students responded and ultimately joined the group....Ray Parsons responded to the MySpace invitation at 3:40 p.m. and was the first to join the group, doing so from a school computer during an after hours class at Musselman High School. Parsons uploaded a photograph of himself and a friend holding their noses while displaying a sign that read, 'Shay Has Herpes,' referring to Shay N. The record of the webpage shows that Kowalski promptly responded, stating, 'Ray you are soo funny!=)' It shows that shortly thereafter, she posted another response to the photograph, stating that it was 'the best picture [I]'ve seen on myspace so far! ! ! !' Several other students posted similar replies. Parsons also uploaded to the 'S.A.S.H.' webpage two additional photographs of Shay N., which he edited. In the first, he had drawn red dots on Shay N.'s face to simulate herpes and added a sign near her pelvic region, that read, 'Warning: Enter at your own risk.' In the second photograph, he captioned Shay N.'s face with a sign that read, 'portrait of a whore.'... One student stated that 'shay knows about the sign' and then stated, 'wait til she sees the page lol.' The next comment replied, 'Haha.. screw her' and repeatedly stated, 'This is great...' "
Shay N's parents filed a harassment suit at school. The school administrators concluded that Kowalski,
"had created a 'hate website,' in violation of the school policy against 'harassment, bullying, and intimidation.' For punishment, they suspended Kowalski from school for 10 days and issued her a 90-day 'social suspension,' which prevented her from attending school events in which she was not a direct participant Kowalski was also prevented from crowning the next 'Queen of Charm' in that year's Charm Review..."
This girl was elected "Queen of Charm" the previous year?! (What, in the name of all that is good, were the qualifications for that title?) She was also not allowed to participate on the cheerleading squad for the remainder of the year. At her father's request, school administrators reduced Kowalski's out-of-school suspension to 5 days, but they retained the 90-day social suspension.

What's important for parents to take away from this suit is that, though Kowalski admitted she created the page, she claimed in her defense that she never posted any of the disparaging remarks. The school officials still held her accountable for the hate speech. And even though she created the page on a home computer, they contended that the school,
"may regulate off-campus behavior insofar as the off-campus behavior creates a foreseeable risk of reaching school property and causing a substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the school,"
Another critical element of the case is that the school's actions were justified and held not in violation of free speech rights because they had provided each student with a copy of the Student Handbook at the beginning of the year which included the School District's Harassment, Bullying, and Intimidation Policy, as well as the Student Code of Conduct. Though students were not required to sign this policy specifically, their receipt of the book held them accountable to the standards therein. The policy also provided that violators would be suspended and that disciplinary actions could be appealed.

Parents need to be aware what their children are doing on social media not only for the harm that can come to them, but the harm that they can do to others and what punitive actions that might bring.

A final note on this sad case. It is the height of arrogance that parents of the student who created a venue for others to publicly harass another student brought the suit because, as a result of the school's actions, their daughter,
"became socially isolated from her peers and received cold treatment from teachers and administrators. She stated that she became depressed and began taking prescription medication for her depression."
Gee I wonder what Shay N. must have felt like after the attack. Are those parents worried about that girl's feelings? Nowhere in the opinion does it mention whether Kowalski ever apologized to Shay. That would have been a better first step.

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