In a recent case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit joined four other circuits in recognizing the right of school districts to discipline students for at least some off-campus, online speech if the speech reasonably leads school authorities to forecast a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities. The case is important because it recognizes that even where a student’s online speech may contain elements of social commentary, if the speech also is reasonably understood to be threatening, harassing, and intimidating in violation of school board policy, schools are within their rights to take disciplinary action.
In Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, addressed a rap song posted by a Mississippi high school senior, Taylor Bell, on his publicly accessible Facebook page and YouTube. The bulk of the song criticized two coaches at the school, who were named in the song, for allegedly engaging in improper sexual relations with female students. The song also included four references to violent acts that would be carried out against the coaches, however, presumably by Bell.
The court found that Bell threatened, harassed, and intimidated the coaches in violation of school policy by intentionally directing his rap recording at the school community. The speech was threatening, harassing, and intimidating, according to the court, despite Bell’s attempts to explain the comments as merely “foreshadowing something that might happen” by someone else or as merely “‘colorful language’ used to entice listeners and reflective of the norm among young rap artists.”
The court went on to find that because the song created a reasonable risk of a substantial disruption, discipline was justified. The speech pertained directly to events occurring at school, identified two teachers by name, and was reasonably interpreted as threatening to the teachers’ safety. Moreover, the potential consequences of the threats were serious, including potential serious injury or death to the threatened coaches. Especially in light of the numerous, recent examples of violence in schools, it was reasonable for the school to determine that there was a risk of disruption that justified discipline.
This case is another important victory for schools, which are tasked with protecting members of the school environment in a world where misconduct often occurs off-campus and online. The case is one in a growing trend of courts recognizing these realities in the current school environment.
School districts are under growing scrutiny and criticism for the lack of clear social media guidelines and policies. For instance, after a Michigan teacher reportedly was sentenced to 6 to 15 years for an inappropriate relationship with a minor student that involved numerous communications through Snapchat and text messages, a news investigation criticized the 44% of 84 school districts that had no specific social media policy on the books. In response, a state representative is now pushing legislation that would require all Michigan schools to have such a policy in place by next school year. Our friends over at LRP Publications also forwarded an interesting story about social media guidelines recently issued by Waco Independent School District in Texas, showing that many school districts are updating their social media guidelines for the coming school year. In light of these recent events, school leaders may be wondering if their school district is in need of a social media tune up. How do you know?
Although a board policy is not always necessary, it is prudent to have certain rules in writing for employees with respect to social media. This can be accomplished through handbooks or guidelines, and should cover more than just relationships between employees and students online. The following are just a few issues that should be addressed in good social media guidelines:
- Why can’t we be friends? As noted previously, what, if any, relationship employees can have with students (and parents!) via personal social media accounts is one of the most important issues addressed in social media guidelines. School districts are coming under fire for not having clear policies on this subject. The options on this issue run the gamut from full prohibitions to full permission, with outright bans being called into question as unconstitutional in at least one state. Most school districts’ guidelines fall somewhere in between. For instance, in Waco, certified staff can have personal social media connections with students with whom they have a separate social relationship, but other staff members may not. If you don’t have clear guidelines for employees on this subject, it can make it difficult to address misconduct if and when it arises. And because of the legal uncertainty in this area, legal review of any proposed guidelines is an essential step.
A lawsuit filed by a California teacher against the school district where she works puts a new spin on an old problem. As the National School Boards Association reported, the suit, filed last week by Amy Sulkis in the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that her school district employer failed to adequately protect her from cyberbullying and online sexual harassment by students who, among other things, created a fake Twitter account in her name and sent out inappropriate Tweets. Legal scholarship has long recognized that although liability for student-on-student and teacher-on-student harassment has led to successful lawsuits against public schools, courts have been less inclined to extend protections to teachers who allege they are harassed by students. Sulkis’s lawsuit shows how these concerns can be compounded by the use of online social media such as Twitter, and creates a new wrinkle in the question of what schools are required to do when teachers complain about online harassment by students.
According to CBS Los Angeles, Sulkis’s lawsuit reportedly alleges that the 16-year teaching veteran had an unblemished record and relationship with students until, in 2013, students created a false Twitter account in her name and sent out “disparaging and sexually suggestive statements” about her. A student who admitted to creating the account was initially given a two-day suspension, but after negotiations with the administration it was reduced to one day. Subsequently, students posted inappropriate and derogatory posts about Sulkis, but when Sulkis reported those posts to the administration she was told there was no available recourse. According to Sulkis, although she and her attorney asked for school-wide training for students on proper use of social media, that request was denied. A later post by a student allegedly included an image of Sulkis, an offensive caption, and a link to a pornographic Twitter page. Sulkis alleged that she was forced to take time off work to deal with the emotional distress and because she did not feel safe in her work environment. The lawsuit followed shortly thereafter. (more…)
The big news in education technology this week is Yik Yak, a free, anonymous social networking application that allows users to post comments that can be seen by others within a 5- to 10-mile radius. The app was intended for use by college students and is described as a localized Twitter for campus communities. But the anonymity of the app allows users to bully others without any risk of identification, and has led to reports of severe bullying in schools across the country. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Yik Yak disabled its app within the Chicago area after at least four schools had to address bullying concerns on the app with their students and parents.
One comment that has repeatedly been made about the recent Yik Yak scandal is that it shows how quickly social media moves and how difficult it is for school administrators to address new issues when they arise. For instance, the Yik Yak app only became popular within the last few months and so was not banned in many schools prior to these recent incidents. And even if banned and blocked through a school’s internet filters, if a school district allows students to access data plans on personal technology devices at school they still can access the app despite the filters and without school officials knowing.
The question arises, then: What can school leaders do to put themselves in the best position to deal with novel social media and technology issues when they arise? Here are a few ideas:
- In student handbooks or other informal guidelines, consider specifically banning student use of any social media program or other technology on school grounds or at school-related events and activities for the purpose of bullying other students. Also consider banning such use anywhere if it causes or reasonably could be foreseen to cause a material and substantial disruption to the school environment or invasion of rights of others in the school community. This way, discipline of perpetrators will be allowed even if a new program or technology used for bullying (such as Yik Yak) is not specifically prohibited and, if it is serious enough, even if it occurs off grounds.
- Also consider banning student use of data plans on personal technology devices at school. This will limit the circumstances when students can avoid a filter or other screening technology when implemented. It also allows school leaders to monitor student use of websites and technology through the Internet system, which is not possible when a student uses their own data plan.
- Educate students, parents, and other members of the school community about the harms that arise from bullying before an incident occurs. Such education should be broad enough to cover types of behavior that are now known or that may occur in the future. Your legal counsel is a good resource for training that meets these needs.
- Ensure that technology policies and procedures are up-to-date and broad enough to put the school district in the best position to address novel misconduct by students, staff, and other members of the school district community when it occurs. For school districts in Illinois, Franczek Radelet has a recent technology policy package created for that purpose.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a tenured teacher for comments she made about her students on Facebook. Good summaries of the case, In re O’Brien, can be found through the National School Boards Association and Education Week (subscriber access only). But the case warrants a closer look for school leaders and employees who wish to better understand First Amendment protections of school-employee speech on the internet. Although the school district was allowed to dismiss the teacher in this situation, where she criticized her young students in an inflammatory way, there is a blurry line between protected and unprotected employee online speech that administrators must be careful to understand. Below are a summary of the facts in the case, the relevant legal standard and its application to O’Brien’s situation, and some lessons that school administrators and employees can learn from the ruling.
In 2010-2011, Jennifer O’Brien was a veteran teacher with over a decade of experience in the Paterson, New Jersey public schools. At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Paterson unexpectedly was assigned to teach first grade at a new school that was predominately comprised of minority students, including African-Americans and Latinos. All of the students in her class, in fact, were either Latino or African-American.
O’Brien began to believe that six or seven of the students in her class had behavioral problems, which were having an adverse impact on her classroom environment. One student struck her, another stole money from her and other students, and some students hit each other.
O’Brien responded to these issues by sending disciplinary referrals to the school administrators on several occasions, but she thought the referrals had not been addressed adequately. O’Brien then posted two posts on her Facebook page relating to the issues:
“I’m not a teacher—I’m a warden for future criminals!”
“They had a scared straight program in school—why couldn’t [I] bring [first] graders?”
O’Brien said she posted the statement that her students were “future criminals” because of the behavior of some – but not all – of the students, not because of their race or ethnicity. News of her posts spread quickly throughout the school district, however. Two angry parents went to her principal’s office to express their outrage, and one parent threatened to remove her child from school. The school also received at least a dozen irate phone calls. Twenty to 25 people gathered outside the school to protest because of the statements, and news reporters and camera crews from major news organizations descended upon the school. At the next Home-School Council meeting, the majority of the meeting was devoted to O’Brien’s posts and parents expressed their outrage over the posts. When O’Brien was made aware of the outrage against her posts, she was surprised that her posts had led to such a reaction. (more…)
One final issue that we delved into at TechCon 2012 last month was discipline of students for off-campus, online misconduct. Stories of schools wrangling with the issue of whether they can discipline students for such misconduct are common, such the recent issue in Granite City, Illinois, in which a school reportedly suspended 21 students, including honor roll students and the homecoming king, for Tweeting, re-Tweeting, or “favoriting” Tweets including one making sexual comments about a female teacher. At TechCon, we discussed a couple of other interesting examples: students taking unflattering photographs of teachers and posting them online and students doing the same with videos of off-campus fights between other students. I made a shameless self-promotion at the presentation and suggested that participants read my recent blog post, Eighth Circuit: School Discipline of Missouri Students For Inflammatory Website Constitutionally Sound, to get some background on the issue. And we discussed that these questions are very fact-specific and must be considered individually as they arise. But we also discussed that school leaders generally need to ask themselves the following three questions with respect to discipline of off-campus, online misconduct.
- Does school board policy allow for discipline of the type of speech in question?
In all cases where discipline is imposed, including for off-campus, online misconduct, it is essential that the district have a clear policy allowing for discipline of the type of activity in question. Even if a school district may discipline a student without infringing on his First Amendment rights, the district still may face challenges if its policy does not allow—or does not clearly allow—for that discipline.
- Is there a sufficient connection between the off-campus, online speech and the school environment?
A sufficient connection, or “nexus,” exists between the off-campus, online speech and the school where it is reasonably foreseeable that the speech would reach and impact the school community. This is a very fact-specific analysis, but here are a few examples of questions that can help you determine whether a sufficient connection exists:
- Were the materials made “public” so they could be viewed by anyone on the Internet?
- Even if the materials were “private,” was access allowed to other students?
- Even if the materials were “private,” were they specifically aimed at the school environment in a way that would lead someone to reasonably expect members of the school community to find out about them?
- Is the speech of the type that can be disciplined in the school context?
Once it is established that the speech can be disciplined under school board policy and that there is a sufficient nexus with the school, the question becomes: Can the speech be disciplined under the First Amendment?
If the speech is “unprotected” speech under the First Amendment it can be disciplined, period. But there are only a few categories of speech that are unprotected, and they are quite rare. One example is speech encouraging illegal drug use, which the Supreme Court in a 2007 case (Morse v. Frederick) held could be disciplined in the school context.
Even if the speech is protected by the First Amendment, it can also be disciplined in the school context if it causes a substantial disruption or invasion of the rights of others, or causes a reasonable risk of a substantial disruption or invasion of the rights of others.
What does that mean? Like the connection/nexus inquiry, the issue is very fact-specific and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The list of questions to ask is long, and the best person to guide you through the process is your school attorney. But here are a few questions that could suggest a substantial disruption if the answer is “yes”:
- Are the materials misleading or false, in a manner that would create a need for the school district to actively correct the misinformation?
- Is there evidence of a past disruption in a similar circumstance?
- Have a number of staff members or students expressed anxiety about the online materials or their safety because of the online material, or missed significant amounts of class because of their concerns about the material?
After discussing these standards for discipline, we also discussed what can (and should) be done if students cannot be disciplined for off-campus, online misconduct. School districts may still be required to respond to the misconduct, particularly if it is pervasive or relates to a protected characteristic such as race, sex, or disability. I suggested that participants review a recent Franczek Radelet Alert (and an OCR letter cited therein) that talks about responses that school districts can (and in some cases must) take in response to bullying and harassment, including online bullying and harassment. Notably, OCR made clear that these responses are available, and may even be required, even if the students who are responsible for the bullying and harassment cannot be disciplined.
As Education Week recently reported, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that two high school students from Missouri were unlikely to establish a First Amendment violation for discipline based on an inflammatory website they posted off-campus on their own time. In S.J.W. v. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, the court approved of the school’s discipline even though the bulk of the disruption caused by the website was the result of a post by an unrelated third party. The Court also rejected yet another attempt by proponents of student speech such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to argue that all off-campus student speech should be off limits for discipline by public schools. The case provides guidance to school leaders on the challenging question of when discipline is warranted for off-campus, online misconduct by students.
In December, 2011, two male high school honor students, who were twin brothers, posted racially and sexually charged slurs on a website. The website – northpress.tk – was reportedly created on a Dutch server that could not be found on a Google search. The boys took this step with the intent of limiting access to six or seven friends and preventing the website from reaching a broader school audience.
A third, unrelated student added a post titled with the N-word which was accessed by multiple students at school and led to a disruption in school that one teacher compared to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. As the brothers alleged in their complaint, the twins were not aware of the post, which was only on the site for approximately 12 hours before being removed by the third student. The twin brothers were nonetheless suspended, first for 10 days and then for 180 days, when the school found out about the website and a disruption ensued. The boys’ school gave them the option to attend an alternative school, but their parents reportedly filed a lawsuit in March because they believed the academics and extracurricular activities at the alternative school were not up to their standards.
A federal District Court determined that, although the website created a substantial disruption, the students were likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim and were entitled to an injunction. This decision was important because, with the injunction and the long life-span of federal trials, the students were likely to graduate before the trial court weighed in with a more permanent decision. The Eight Circuit, however, disagreed and held that the students were not likely to succeed on the merits of their claim and, so, were not entitled to an injunction. (more…)