(MCT) — ST. LOUIS — A sexually inappropriate tweet about a teacher started it, but by the time administrators at Granite City High in Illinois scoured the recent social media activity of students, at least 10 were suspended, unleashing an explosion of criticism online.
School administrators said they had no choice but to act because students violated school rules. But an official with the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the school district and others throughout the country are commonly going too far when it comes to monitoring Internet activity outside of school.
“This is punishing students for what they say and what they do outside of the school. And even if what they do and what they say is inappropriate, there’s a mechanism in place already to correct kids behavior outside of school—they’re called parents,” said Illinois ACLU policy director Ed Yohnka.
Indeed, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking activity outside of school has increasingly become an issue as schools tackle online bullying and sexting. Most schools have detailed student handbooks with sections devoted to cell phone, computer and social networking use. Most connect what happens on personal computers and cell phones outside of school with school rules and policy.
The wave of suspensions at Granite City High started after a student wrote a demeaning comment that sexually objectified a female teacher on the social networking site Twitter.
That led two of the student’s friends to click “retweet,” which posted the comment on their Twitter feeds, effectively broadcasting it to a wider net of followers, mostly students. A third friend clicked an icon favoring the original post—which is the equivalent of giving the comment a thumbs-up in social network speak.
One of the students who retweeted the comment about the teacher to his followers said he didn’t give it a second thought. Now the honors student said he is worried about his chances of getting into a Division I school to play basketball.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was at home with my friends when I saw it on Twitter. I laughed and I retweeted,” said sophomore DeAndre Williams. “It’s not like we screamed it down the hallway to her and embarrassed her in front of everybody.”
What resulted was a five-day suspension for him and his three friends.
That led to a complaint by a parent that other inappropriate comments were being posted on the social media site involving the school. What followed was a review of Twitter by school officials that resulted in even more suspensions, said Principal Jim Greenwald.
Not only did school officials discover two other students tweeting inappropriate comments about teachers, they found another student had said she ought to bomb the school so she wouldn’t have to go. That comment was retweeted by three of her friends, Greenwald said.
“We don’t go out looking for individual comments on the Internet, but when it threatens or compromises a person’s sexual integrity or there are comments or threats pertaining to school safety, then that does become school business,” he said.
Greenwald said all the students—regardless of who originally posted the comments or who later passed them on or endorsed them—violated the school handbook signed by each student. Specifically, they violated rules against posting comments that cause “school students or staff members to feel threatened or compromised” or that are “likely to cause disruption in the school,” he said.
Greenwald further pointed to policies forbidding inappropriate language or behavior directed at school employees, even if off-campus.
Greenwald said high school staff spent a lot of time with students at the start of the school year discussing Internet and cellphone usage as it related to school policy. He said the school recently decided to allow more use of cellphones on campus, and because of that, administrators had initiated intense discussion with students about appropriate social networking.
Assistant Principal Skip Birdsong said students need to understand that posting things on the Internet is the equivalent of taking an advertisement out in a newspaper.
“What’s the difference there? It’s in print. It’s the same thing,” he said.
Yohnka, of the ACLU, said schools particularly have no right to punish students for retweeting or liking a comment.
“That’s really punishing thoughts at some point,” he said.
In cases where there’s not a direct threat to the school, Yohnka said school districts are commonly going way beyond their bounds by punishing a student for posting an inappropriate comment off school property.
Greenwald, begged to differ.
“In this day and age of Facebook and Twitter and out-of-school multimedia, this is something we have to deal with,” he said. “We have to be cognizant and aware of what is school business and what isn’t school business.”
He said that nationwide, school policy increasingly calls for intervention if what students “post outside of the school infiltrates and creates the same type of disruption in the school.”
Yohnka said that reasoning typically backfires on schools.
“The reality is that the only thing that is causing the disruption is that now everyone is talking about these students being suspended,” he said.
Several recent cases across the country highlight the conflict.
In Indiana, a senior was expelled from high school after posting from home on his Twitter account and repeatedly using a swear word. Some states such as Indiana and West Virginia are proposing statewide policies prohibiting inappropriate online posts to prevent bullying or offensive speech that might be considered an interference with school functions or educational purposes.
The disciplinary actions at Granite City High on Wednesday prompted outrage online on Twitter, with many students arguing even Friday that they were unfairly punished, and that the school stepped out of bounds by scouring Twitter. Students were marking their tweets with hashtags such as #freejustice, in honor of one of the students who was suspended.
One student, Dylan Thevenout, 17, said he was suspended for five days on Thursday because he was interacting at school with students who had signs protesting the suspensions.
Another student who was suspended acknowledged through Twitter on Friday that the incident had likely been a burden to the teacher. But he also tweeted: “I guess this counts as our senior prank.”
Other people on Twitter have repeated and even elaborated on the sexually inappropriate comment that started the uproar.
Greenwald said the four students involved with the tweet that mentioned bombing were given 10-day suspensions pending an administrative hearing. All other students involved with inappropriate tweets about teachers were given five-day suspensions. Greenwald said the students will likely be given pre-expulsion meetings when they return, meaning they and their parents will be put on notice that any further disciplinary problems could result in them not being allowed to return to school.
Greenwald said the district had no choice but to view the mention of bombing the school as a possible threat, and brought in police.
DeAndre Williams said that everyone was just joking around and that the school could have handled it differently with warnings. He said he was willing to make an apology. Even though he signed a school handbook, he said he had no idea what it truly meant about out-of-school online behavior.
“They made us sign the handbook and there was some Internet policy, but there was nothing like this where they said they can check our stuff on Twitter,” he said “I would never expect that.”