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Student Punished for Facebook Comments


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A Minnesota middle school is being sued after it forced a sixth grader to give up her Facebook password.

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I recently wrote about I talked about a report by MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan on employers who insist on pawing through job candidates’ Facebook profiles before hiring them. If that ticks you off, you’ll love this next bit.

The ACLU is suing a school in Minnesota for doing the same thing to one of its sixth graders. Administrators at Minnewaska Area Middle School punished “R. S.” after she posted to her Facebook page that one of the school’s hall monitors was “mean.” Per the ACLU press release:

In early 2011 R.S. posted a comment, while at home, on her Facebook page about her dislike of a school staff member. The school learned about the comment, and R.S. received a detention and was forced to write an apology to the staff member. She was disciplined again when she cursed on her Facebook page, complaining that someone reported her to the school. This time she was given an in-school suspension and was prohibited from attending a school field trip. ….

In a second incident R.S. was brought into a school administrator’s office where she was coerced to turn over (against her will) login information to her Facebook and email accounts because of allegations that she had online conversations about sex with another student off-campus. Present at the search was a local deputy along with two school officials. During this process, R.S. was called a liar and told she would be given detentions if she did not give the adults access to her accounts. R.S.’s mother was not informed about the search until after it happened. The Deputy and school officials did not have a warrant to search R.S.’s private accounts.

Technically, this girl shouldn’t be on Facebook in the first place. To avoid getting entangled with Federal laws restricting the gathering of sensitive information about children, Facebook (like a lot of Web sites) draws the line at age 13.

The problem? Some 7.5 million members of Facebook are under age 13, according to Consumer Reports. I know this firsthand because my kids were among them, as well as all of their friends. It’s easy enough to lie about your age on Facebook, and parents who think they can keep their kids off Facebook are fooling themselves. (My kids are now of legal Facebook age, thank you for your concern.) The social network claims it scrubs 20,000 accounts a day, some for being underage; I suspect that’s a fraction of the number of preteens who sign up each 24 hours. But I digress.

The real issue is, does the school have the right to regulate a child’s behavior on Facebook? Yes, but to a very limited degree – and far short of what that Minnesota school did. Kids have rights, too. Here’s a real life example of how the school should have responded.

A few years back a young teenager of my acquaintance got suspended from 8th grade for something he did on Facebook. He borrowed a substitute teacher’s smartphone at recess, logged onto her Facebook account, and changed her status to “dead.” He immediately regretted the move and tried to undo it, but could not. He intended it as a joke, but the teacher wasn’t laughing. He got to stay home for three days, pondering the school’s social media policies.

What’s different here?

One: The school had a clear policy about the use of social media, which it shared at the beginning of the school year with all of its students. I don’t know whether the Minnesota school had any written policy, or if it did whether students knew about it.

Two: The action took place on school grounds, using someone else’s device.

Three: The school administration got the parents involved before taking any action.

Four: The student was not coerced or intimidated into giving up the password to his account. He was just sent home for a few days.

Five: The misdeed took place in public, on a Facebook update others could read. It wasn’t contained in a private message.

Other students at this school were also suspended for longer periods after they used Facebook to harass and/or bully other kids. This teen got off relatively easy. But I think the school handled it correctly.

The Minnewaska school? Not so much. I think R. S. and the ACLU have an excellent case against the school district, and I hope somebody loses their job over it. But I bet it won’t be the last time we hear about something like this.

Meanwhile, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Facebook needs to fix its kid problem. Personally I think Facebook should spin off a separate version of the network for kids age 10 to 17, requiring authentication and signoff by parents.

There are already social networks dedicated to tweens, such as Imbee. Unfortunately, they’re not where the kids want to be. They want to be with their friends who are on Facebook. And they will be – regardless of any rules Facebook publishes and/or pretends to enforce.

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