A growing number of school officials in the Indianapolis area are trying to punish students for Internet commentary they deem inappropriate — including postings on home computers — drawing outrage from teens and free-speech advocates.
One student has been expelled at one school, another suspended. One school district has warned students they are legally responsible for postings; another will vote on a similar policy this month.
"Kids look at the Internet as today’s restroom wall," said Steve Dillon, director of student services for Carmel Clay Schools. "They need to learn that some things are not acceptable anywhere."
Carmel High School used its harassment and bullying policy to expel a student Dillon said posted sexually explicit comments about a teacher on MySpace. A second Carmel student was suspended for 10 days and given community service for posting racially offensive comments about a teacher on the site, he said.
Another area school district, Clark-Pleasant in Whiteland, is trying to pass a policy that puts students — and teachers — on notice that they are legally responsible for anything they post online, including material deemed defamatory, obscene, proprietary or libelous. The proposed policy will come before the School Board on Oct. 17. Beech Grove passed a similar policy in the spring. "If something starts online and spills into school, we want to be able to deal with that and restore order to the school," said Clark-Pleasant Director of Technology Jim White, who crafted the district’s proposed policy on responding to Internet activity.
While educators worry that postings on Web sites such as MySpace can disrupt learning, students see controlling what they post outside school as a threat to their right of free speech.
Civil rights advocates are on their side, worrying that the new policies extend government’s reach too far into the personal lives of students.
"It’s chilling and gives the effect that people don’t know what they can and cannot say," said Henry Karlson, a professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. "How disruptive does it have to be for the school to be able to control it?"
MySpace and other social networking sites are an integral part of tech-savvy teens’ worlds. Students post everything from photos and homemade videos to journals chronicling their crushes, vacations and school experiences.
To these kids, the idea of new controls is troubling.
"The school system has no right to sit there and tell us what we can and cannot do at home," said 17-year-old Kayla Wiggington, a junior at Clark-Pleasant’s Whiteland Community High School who uses MySpace to keep in touch with friends. "They can control what we do at school, but when it gets home, the only people who can tell us what to do is our parents, not the school."
At this point, only a few schools in the metro area have policies targeting what students can say online. But virtually all block access on school computers to sites such as MySpace and Facebook, where students can post photos, text and other material, and the online journals known as blogs on Web sites such as LiveJournal and Xanga.
Dillon said the Carmel Clay district hoped its cases would serve as a warning to students.
"We wanted to find a couple students, prove it was them, apply discipline and then let the word get out to the other kids," he said.
Who should monitor kids?
Schools, however, must remember that students do have significant First Amendment rights in school, said Karlson, the law professor.
He said most of the policies he’s reviewed do not define disruptions clearly.
"The control of student speech should be in the hands of the parents, not the school, when children are out of school," he said. "It’s unfortunate that the school is regulating student activities instead of parents doing that."
The Indiana School Boards Association has seen a rise in the number of schools inquiring about disciplining students based on Internet postings and the need for new policies.
"Lots of schools are asking what they can do," said Julie Slavens, the association’s staff attorney. "In the past six months, I’ve had more calls than ever before."
She said the association reminds schools that students do have free-speech rights, but that students must remember that anyone — parents, principals and potential employers — has access to what they say online.
"We’re educating kids that people are watching what they say and do online," she said, "and that it’s not as private as they think."
Whiteland junior Logan Sappington uses MySpace to promote his acoustic guitar duo, Hopeless Romantics. He said it’s fine for schools to use the policies when physical threats are made against students, but he questions whether administrators will go too far in spying on students’ lives outside school and in trampling on their free-speech rights.
"I think they should notify the parents if they hear of something," said Sappington, 17. "In the end, this is just gossip. That’s all that’s on MySpace — gossip."
Slavens, the attorney, said students should be prepared for more policies — and monitoring — to come.
"MySpace and other sites really have a life of their own," she said. "We’re going to see more and more of this in the next few months."
A few local schools’ policies on Internet usage
Here are three examples of policies local school districts have adopted or are considering adopting regarding Internet postings:
Beech Grove – "Computer Usage Infractions — Actions that do not adhere to the provisions of the authorized user policy or federal law with regard to computer facilities and equipment. Creating e-mails, Web blogs, Web sites, etc. . . . with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate, or harm individuals."
Carmel Clay – "The superintendent is directed to establish administrative guidelines to ensure that students and staff are making appropriate and ethical use of computers, other equipment and networks. The superintendent shall establish administrative guidelines which comply with federal and state laws and are in accordance with any guidelines promulgated by the State Department of Education.
The superintendent shall also ensure that staff and students are adequately informed about disciplinary actions that will be taken if corporation technology and/or networks are abused in any way or used in an illegal or unethical manner."
Clark-Pleasant (remains under consideration) –
Excerpt: "When you choose to publicly air your opinions via a blog, you are legally responsible for your commentary. Individual bloggers can be held personally liable for any commentary deemed to be defamatory, obscene (not swear words, but rather the legal definition of "obscene"), proprietary or libelous. For these reasons, bloggers should exercise caution with regards to exaggeration, colorful language, guesswork, obscenity, copyrighted materials, legal conclusions and derogatory remarks or characteristics."