Suspended for a tweet?

Suspended for a tweet

In Michigan, a student was suspended for using ‘profanity’ in a tweet that encouraged his district superintendent to clear the snow in the school parking lot. In Maine, a high schooler was suspended for tweeting that poor student treatment by administrators meant that “they’re asking to be the next Columbine.” And in Florida, a student was suspended for ‘cyberbullying’ a coach with a single tweet that allegedly just reciprocated the same insult that the coach had called her earlier.

As these and other instances show, one of the more recent challenges for school administrators is students’ use of social media to express their opinions. As Deron Durflinger, Superintendent of the Van Meter (IA) Community Schools notes,

The world we live in today provides ample opportunities for everyone to express their opinions on a variety of topics through social media. The focus in our district is always on helping kids learn how to use the tools that they have at their disposal in the appropriate manner. We want them to share what they are thinking, but we want to help teach them the right way to do it.

What Durflinger describes is frequently a difficult task and it’s not altogether clear that we’re navigating an appropriate balance between school concerns and students’ constitutional rights, particularly when our youth express themselves off campus.

Private schools have it easier – their ability to regulate student and educator speech is governed by contract. If they wish to enact tighter regulations, they merely change the attendance contract and then families decide whether they wish to comply or go elsewhere. Public schools, on the other hand, must navigate a whole host of constitutional protections, state laws, and court decisions.

The general parameters are relatively clear for public school administrators who face student speech situations. The U.S. Supreme Court said in its landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision that the default rule is that students have constitutional speech rights and that schools must respect those absent a ‘material and substantial disruption’ to the school environment. Later Supreme Court cases articulated some additional exceptions, saying that schools can regulate student speech if it is vulgar and on school grounds, part of the school curriculum, or advocates at a school-sponsored event for the use of illegal drugs.

The same speech that may result in discipline at school, however, often can’t be regulated if at occurs at home. For instance, a school can’t suspend a student for swearing in his backyard even though it could at school. Similarly, a student that expressed unhappiness with her teacher verbally to her friends at home wouldn’t be disciplined, so it’s unclear why putting the same statement in electronic form makes a legal difference. The requirement of a ‘material and substantial disruption’ still applies.

This doesn’t mean that students can say whatever they want off campus. Student threats to cause real harm – like the implied threat in Maine – typically aren’t protected. And sometimes students fall under codes of conduct that accompany extracurricular participation. But in general, students are allowed to have opinions and they’re allowed to express those opinions, particularly when they’re not in school. School leaders can’t suspend students for off campus speech just because they don’t like what they said or how they said it.

Accordingly, I’m not certain that the Michigan student should have been suspended. Yes, he could have been more polite. And, yes, he could have used different wording. But the ‘profanity’ he used was on the lower end of the offensiveness scale (we hear it on network TV, for instance) and there’s not any indication that he was being anything other than a cheeky youth at home. (know any of those? if so, do they deserve suspension?) The suspension of the Florida youth is similarly troubling, particularly if her coach had used the phrase about her first (double standard?) and since bullying typically is legally defined as a pattern of behavior over time, not a single incident.

There are many more examples worth mentioning. The school hockey team captain in Alaska who made racist and homophobic comments on Twitter on his own time. The Wisconsin student who tweeted “eat sh-t” to the state high school athletic association. The Washington student who tweeted the same to the school superintendent. The 20 Oregon students who were suspended for retweeting. And the 12 Colorado students who were disciplined for ‘liking’ a fairly innocuous tweet from a classmate. All of these raise important issues about the balance between school concerns and student rights.

Yes, we want to help students learn polite and appropriate communication. And, yes, we want to prevent bullying. But we also must remember that the First Amendment is intended to protect speech that is unpopular and maybe even upsetting. We must recognize that students have a constitutional right to free expression – sometimes even when it’s coarse, antagonistic, or hurtful – particularly when it is off school grounds. The Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:

That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

As school leaders, we must take seriously our obligations to comply with the law, educate our students and communities, and model democratic citizenship and the protection of Constitutional rights. As Durflinger notes, “We can’t get caught up in putting rules into place that not only might violate student rights but also really only apply to 1 to 2 percent of our students. In other words, ‘don’t kill a fly with a sledge hammer.’” If the moral / ethical / legal / administrative angle isn’t persuasive enough, consider also whether we wish to pay six-figure settlements to our students for infringing upon their legal rights.

Let’s advocate that our students be more thoughtful when they tweet. And let’s be more thoughtful too about our own responses…

[cross-posted at Front and Central]

Image credit: Twitter (via Cañon City Daily Record)

Are these Illinois students getting the wrong lesson about Twitter and free speech?

[UPDATE: The high school principal is now threatening to suspend students who protest this situation. Never mind that the administrators’ decisions are arguably illegal for many of the suspended students. And apparently also never mind the First Amendment and students’ Constitutionally-protected speech rights. The quote from the Supreme Court at the bottom of this post? It’s worth reading again…]

If a student calls a teacher a MILF on Twitter, should he be suspended? If other students retweet his tweet – or give it a thumbs up – should they be suspended? The school administrators at Granite City High School in Granite City, Illinois think so. They’ve suspended multiple students for 5 to 10 days apiece (the longer suspensions were related to a student’s tweet that she should blow up the school so that she wouldn’t have to attend).

Unsurprisingly, online reactions have been quick and fierce (as has been the conversation on Facebook). Here are a few tweets since the suspensions:

Freejustice01

Freejustice02

Freejustice03

Freejustice04

Freejustice05

Freejustice06

Freejustice07

Courts have ruled that there is no First Amendment protection for speech that constitutes a ‘true threat.’ When a student says that she should blow up the school so that she doesn’t have to go, is her speech a ‘true threat?’ Arguable at best, but it’s hard to say without knowing more. But when her classmates forward that on, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation?

Courts have consistently upheld students’ rights to have personal opinions. And they have repeatedly affirmed students’ rights to express themselves off campus as long as it doesn’t cause a ‘material and substantial disruption’ at school. And they have stated that for many controversies – for example, defamation (i.e., ‘you ruined my reputation’) – public schools should not insert themselves into what essentially are private lawsuits between individuals. So when a student says that his teacher is physically and/or sexually attractive, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation? And when his classmates forward it along because they agree and/or think it’s funny, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation?

The Granite City High student handbook says that inappropriate language/behavior includes ‘disrespect to a staff member off campus.’ But who defines this? And how much leeway do we give them? And is saying that a teacher is ‘hot’ even disrespectful? Students say every day that teachers suck, are terrible, are fat, are ugly, or whatever. Does that mean that they all should be suspended? And when kids write or say these things at home – electronically or vocally – do we want schools to have the right to reach that far into our neighborhoods, our homes, and our children’s lives?

Just because a school has a rule doesn’t mean it’s legal. School rules get overturned for illegality all the time. But of even greater concern are the messages that we send our students. As the Supreme Court said in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette:

That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

What lessons do you think these Illinois students are learning about the law, personal responsibility, power, ethics, adult arbitrariness, and/or schools’ responsibility to uphold children’s legal rights?

Internet safety talking points: IT pushback

Internetpadlock

A lot of people found value in my Internet safety talking points for school leaders, including Cory Doctorow, Bruce Schneier, and Tim Cushing. The post now has been tweeted, liked, pinned, and shared over 1,000 times. I shared a PDF version with superintendents earlier this week. But a school IT employee in Eastern Iowa thought it was ‘adversarial’ and ‘hateful.’

I spoke with her yesterday on the phone for about 30 minutes. She was extremely offended by B, spoke vociferously against Google and Facebook (although her school system is not blocking them), couldn’t wrap her head around E or F, thought G and H were untrue (and didn’t want to hear about the research done by danah boyd and the Berkman Center that is behind those statements), and stated that the Bonus was insulting. Needless to say, our conversation didn’t result in a meeting of the minds. I encouraged her to voice her concerns in the comment area so that we all could have a dialogue but she didn’t think that school IT people read my blog and believed that she would not get a fair shake. Her final statement to me was that she was now worried that her school administrator would be breathing down her neck and asking her more questions about the decisions that she’s making. I responded that I thought that was a good thing since we all need to be regularly reconsidering and reexamining our policies and decision-making in light of both learning and teaching considerations and the rapid changes that are occurring in our information landscape. That’s when she thanked me for the call and decided it was time for us to be done.

The transcript of her voice mail message is below. Any thoughts or reactions to this?

Dr. McLeod, I had hoped I could speak with you directly. You don’t know me but I just read your article on administrators and how they should think about Internet safety and, as a 25-year veteran of IT, I want to say that I’m completely offended. This is just sad that you’re setting up this adversarial relationship between administrators and IT with the tone of your letter here and if you think that’s going to help the situation by getting IT departments angry, because that’s what this article will do. Obviously you’ve got some issues there with filtering. I would be surprised if the University of Kentucky is blocking. We don’t block any of the sites you mention but you’re leaving out a lot of very important things regarding the CIPA law with K-12, regarding E-Rate funding, regarding attacks of viruses, malware – it’s just a really simplistic approach when I look at this. I’m really disappointed in that but I don’t think my voice mail’s probably going to change your idea, I just think that you’d be doing everyone a service to not be having such an angry, resentful type of article like that which does nothing more than put a divide between two departments that, by the way, don’t work for each other, they partner with each other. So I would say you might want to rethink that and maybe even present a different article that’s a little less hateful. Thanks.

26 Internet safety talking points

[UPDATE: A PDF version of these talking points is now available.]

For Leadership Day 2012, I thought I would gather in one place many of the talking points that I use with principals and superintendents about Internet safety…

  1. InternetpadlockEven though they may use fancy terms and know more than you do about their domain, you never would allow your business manager or special education coordinator to operate without oversight. So stop doing so with your technology coordinator.
  2. The technology function of your school organization exists to serve the educational function, not the other way around. Corollary: your technology coordinator works for you, not vice versa.
  3. Mobile phones, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Wikispaces, Google, and whatever other technologies you’re blocking are not inherently evil. Stop demonizing them and focus on people’s behavior, not the tools, particularly when it comes to making policy.
  4. You don’t need special policies for specific tools. Just check that the policies you have are inclusive of electronic communication channels and then enforce the policies you already have on bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, illicit behavior, etc.
  5. Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.
  6. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.
  7. The ‘online predators will prey on your schoolchildren’ argument is a false bogeyman, a scare tactic that is fed to us by the media, politicians, law enforcement, and computer security vendors. The number of reported incidents in the news of this occurring is zero.
  8. Federal laws do not require your draconian filtering. You can’t point the finger somewhere else. You have to own it yourself.
  9. Students and teachers rise to the level of the expectations that you have for them. If you expect the worst, that’s what you’ll get.
  10. Schools that ‘loosen up’ with students and teachers find that they have no more problems than they did before. And, often, they have fewer problems because folks aren’t trying to get around the restrictions.
  11. There’s a difference between a teachable moment and a punishable moment. Lean toward the former as much as possible.
  12. If your community is pressuring you to be more restrictive, that’s when it’s time to educate, not capitulate. Overzealous blocking and filtering has real and significant negative impacts on information access, student learning, pedagogy, ability to address required curricular standards, and educators’ willingness to integrate technology. It also makes it awfully tough to prepare students for a digital era.
  13. ‘Walled garden’ online environments prevent the occurrence of serendipitous learning connections with the outside world.
  14. If you’re prohibiting teachers from being ‘friends’ with students online, are you also prohibiting them from being ‘friends’ with students in neighborhoods, at church, in volunteer organizations, at the mall, and in other non-school settings?
  15. Schools with mindsets of enabling powerful student learning usually block much less than those that don’t. Their first reaction is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than ‘we need to keep this out.’
  16. As the lead learner, it’s your responsibility to actively monitor what’s being filtered and blocked and to always reconsider that in light of learning and teaching needs.
  17. If you trust your teachers with the children, you should trust them with the Internet. Addendum: Mistrust of teachers drives away good educators.
  18. If you make it too hard to get permission to unblock something, you might as well not have the option in the first place.
  19. Unless you like losing lawsuits, remember that students and staff have speech and privacy rights, particularly off-campus. Remember that any dumb decision you make is Internet fodder and has a good chance of going viral online. Do you really want to be the next stupid administrator story on The Huffington Post?
  20. When you violate the Constitution and punish kids just because you don’t like what they legally said or did and think you can get away with it, you not only run the risk of incurring financial liability for your school system in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but also abuse your position of trust and send messages to students about the corruption of power and disregard for the rule of law.
  21. Never make a policy you can’t enforce.
  22. Don’t abdicate your teaching responsibility. Students do not magically gain the ability at the end of the school day or after graduation to navigate complex, challenging, unfiltered digital information spaces. If you don’t teach them how to navigate the unfiltered Internet appropriately and safely while you have them, who’s going to?
  23. Acceptable use and other policies send messages to students, staff, and parents. Is the predominant message that you want to send really that ‘the technologies that are transforming everything around us should first and foremost be feared?’
  24. Imagine a scale with two balancing pans. On one side are all of the anxieties, fears, barriers, challenges, and perceived problems that your staff, parents, and community members put forth. If you want effective technology integration and implementation to occur in your school system, it is your job as the leader to tip the scale the other way. Addendum: It is difficult to understand the learning power of digital technologies – and easy to dismiss their pedagogical usefulness – if you are not familiar enough with them to understand their positive affordances.
  25. In a hyperconnected, technology-suffused, digital, global world, you do your children a disservice – and highlight your irrelevance – by blocking out our present and their future.
  26. Educating is always, always more powerful than blocking.

BONUS 1. Elsewhere in your state – perhaps even near you – are school districts that have figured this out. They operate under the same laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that you do. If they can be less restrictive, why can’t you?

A huge thanks to everyone who has influenced my thinking and my writing in this area, including folks like Doug Johnson, Sylvia Martinez, danah boyd, Will Richardson, and Tina Barseghian. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a few talking points that I’ll just add later. Which one is your favorite (or least favorite)? What would you add to or change on this list?

For other Leadership Day 2012 posts, see the complete list of submissions and/or #leadershipday12.

Image credit: Bigstock, Internet security

I think I’m going to be on NPR’s All Things Considered today

I think I’m going to be on NPR’s All Things Considered today as part of its All Tech Considered segment. I was interviewed last week about the New York City Schools’ new social media policy for employees. Regular readers know that I’ve written about this in the past. If I am featured on the show, I’ll add the link here afterward. If you hear me, let me know what you think!

UPDATE: Here is the NPR All  Things Considered story and the New York Times SchoolBook story.