Somewhat related to the last post about the War on MySpace, now this is a case of schools using information posted on student’s websites and MySpace pages to punish them. The Chicago Tribune did a story on it, and asked for our comments. Excerpts:

A north suburban school district could become one of the first in the state to adopt rules holding students accountable for what they post on blogs or social-networking Web sites like MySpace.com.

The school board of Community High School District 128, which includes Libertyville and Vernon Hills High Schools, is expected to vote Monday on a change to student conduct codes that would make evidence of “illegal or inappropriate behavior” posted on the sites grounds for disciplinary action.

and:

he proposed change states that “maintaining or being identified on a blog site which depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior will be considered a violation of this code.”

Lea said officials would treat any incriminating information from a Web site as evidence they would use while conducting an investigation into the offending behavior.

If district officials find illegal Web content about a student who is not involved in activities, they would investigate, contact the student’s parents and decide whether to discipline the student or involve police, Lea said.

NYRA’s official statement on the issue:

The National Youth Rights Association strongly condemns schools that use online information about a student as grounds for punishment.

From a simple picture posted online of a student holding a beer bottle it would be impossible to tell whether the bottle is full or empty, whether that student had been consuming it or not, whether the student is in the presence of parents which would make the situation legal, or whether the student is overseas in a country where consuming alcohol is legal. For such reasons a picture posted online is not sufficient evidence for adults to be prosecuted for similar crimes, and should not be used to punish students.

Regardless, schools attempting to punish students for actions done outside of school is a dramatic overreaching of school authority. No longer do schools seem concerned with the education of students, but rather are now going to extreme measures to control behavior both in and out of school – territory best left to parents.

In the Tinker vs. Des Moines Supreme Court case at issue was the rights of students in school. The Court issued a stern warning that the “Bill of Rights does not stop at the schoolhouse gate” sadly if this school policy is allowed to stand not only will the Bill of Rights no longer apply inside the schoolhouse gate, but it won’t apply outside of it either. The Court that stated that “schools should not be enclaves of totalitarianism” could have never dreamed that schools would seek to spread that totalitarianism into the personal lives of students, with jurisdiction over them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

This new measure gives schools a great deal more power over students, and thus far schools have a terrible record for acting responsibly with such power. There have been many cases of schools punishing students simply for criticizing a principle on a private website, and “outing” gay students to their parents. This new policy will result in punishment for all students – whether they are in an extra curricular activity or anything the school deems “inappropriate”.

Unless a student’s behavior directly and tangibly disrupts learning at school, it is simply none of the school’s business. Schools are not a massive unrestrained police force for all individuals under 18. Taking on that role is harmful to students and harmful to education.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz
Executive Director
National Youth Rights Association