Do schools have the right to expel students for tweets?

Do schools have the right to expel students for tweets?

Summary: Swear in a school corridor, detention. Swear on Twitter, expulsion.

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Social media. There are several new cases every week which are reported by the media of people convicted due to behavior on social networking sites, employers are criticized for wanting the right to snoop around in employee Facebook accounts, and students face the consequences of talking about their university online.

Now, however, if you say a naughty word on Twitter, the appropriate punishment is not a mouth-rinse with soap, but expulsion.

Austin Carroll, formerly of Garrett High School, Indiana, sent a rather juvenile tweet from his Twitter account, allegedly outside of school hours:

"F****** is one of those f****** words you can f****** put anywhere in a f****** sentence and it still f****** makes sense."

Carroll claimed the tweet was sent via his home computer. However, an automated system for spying on student social media activity set up by Garrett High School recorded the tweet as being sent from a campus-based computer.

In contrast, the student says the message was sent at 2.30am from home.

Based on this act, the student was summarily booted from the school -- and later police became involved as other students protested his expulsion.

Carroll told Indiana News Center:

"If my account is on my own personal account, I don't think the school or anybody should be looking at it. Because it's my own personal stuff and it's none of their business."

Some schools may be overstepping the mark by spying on their student's social activities in this manner. The tweet was not racial, sexist, or insulting. Yes, it was profane, but nothing out of the common way in terms of what teenagers say and do.

Not only this, but educational establishments are also opening themselves up for court cases -- which may be the case in situations like Carolls, since he was expelled three months before graduation. Although now enrolled elsewhere, he will be unable to attend the usual events associated with completing school.

The 'automatic tracking system' the school uses apparently tracks tweets whenever a student logs in to their account. There is a question mark circling around whether the system actually works or not -- as the student states his message was sent outside both school grounds and hours.

If you start accusing students of actions through unprovable or false pretenses in the name of curbing inappropriate online behavior, then this officious action will become detrimental to the school.

Eventually, a parent or child will fight back -- and so will other students, as the need to call the police in Garret's case proved.

One particular point concerning this student being expelled disturbed me. If a student swore in a school hallway, it is not reason enough to expel them. Children swear, and teachers swear far more than they do -- become a fly on the wall in a staff room for evidence. However, swear online -- oh, the inappropriateness! Expel the monster!

It's a witch hunt mentality. As communication and messages online have far more extended and potentially damaging affects for a school's reputation than 'physical' inappropriate  behavior (such as swearing in class), the school tracks and descends upon anything they constitute as against school conduct, and hit the student with the largest stick they can find.

Forget the carrot. Rather than perhaps asking the student to be more careful with what they say online, and explaining the consequences, schools track, spy and attempt to quash online student behavior.

It's not detention or suspension. Drop the F-word and you're gone. I suppose the school would do the same if a child spat out the epithet in class after dropping something heavy on their foot?

This is not about teaching a student a harsh lesson in digital citizenship. It's a school's means of trying to scare students away from social media, in a vain attempt to prevent any possible communication that may or may not reflect badly on a school.

There is merit in recognizing that social media can be either a boon or a curse on an organisation's reputation. However, in Carroll's case and undoubtedly many more soon to come, the school has taken it too far.

You cannot punish someone so severely for an online remark if the same content would not constitute the same consequences in the physical world.

The reports of employers asking for Facebook passwords has caused outrage, cries of privacy invasion and overstepping the mark. Is it possible that students will be the next group that will have to hand over their social media account information?

Image credit: C.Osborne/ZDNet

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47 comments
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  • Well "if" it was a school computer then the school might face

    Legal action if say a post is said to have caused a suicide. If the student wins the "it's my personal account" regardless of the device used to access such an account then in turn any and all schools should be able to avoid any liability due to the use of individual accounts on the schools computers/network. Frankly to protect everyone's freedoms and rights to expression no matter how juvenile and or ugly I hope the student wins and in doing so also frees the school system from legal worries regarding the use of its systems.

    Pagan jim
    James Quinn
  • Another example of pushing the boundaries instead of staying disciplined

    If the schools seem are responsible for things outside of the classrooms like bullying, or Columbine-like threats, then the schools should have the right to control the tweets outside of the classrooms.

    Ideally, it is the parents responsibility, but the parents seem to be too lazy or expect the schools to discipline the students. So give the schools the right to discipline the students, or penalize the parents for not disciplining the student tweets.
    ArquitectoInstruccional
    • Short sighted

      If a "punishment" differs between online, oral or written, then something is wrong with the system.
      Social fear has never worked long term. It may be great short term but eventually the oppressed will revolt. We are supposed to be teaching right from wrong, reinforcing good behavior and TEACHING alternatives to improper behavior. This is WOW..... :O
      rhonin
    • I think you meant "privilege"

      Institutions may or may not have rights, but "should" has nothing to do with it (rights are moral entitlements, not legal ones).

      Apparently, all the student did was to creatively use profanity from a school computer; reprehensible, but hardly an expelling offiense. The most that is justified is revocation of on-campus computing privileges.
      John L. Ries
  • Witch hunt mentality . . .

    Well said. That's exactly what it is. There is an increasing trend in 'official' institutions towards punitive intolerance of what is essentially normal human behavior. In essence, a lot of people want to criminalise the state of being a rather typical person, doing rather typical things. This is simply cruelty and intolerance as a matter of policy, in the guise of enforcing an arbitrary standard of perfection that no normal person could possibly live up to. Whether this student used a school computer or not, expulsion is unjustifiable.
    preilly2@...
    • Schools are "intolerant" for a reason.

      In my school district, there are five times more lawyers on staff than there were just ten years ago. And it's not a big school district! But schools are constantly being blamed for almost anything that happens to somebody's kid no matter how peripheral it was to classroom instruction.

      Discrimination, bullying, "sexual harassment" and religious intolerance. Our school has had to deal with recent lawsuits on all of these topics, and NONE of them actually involved faculty or staff! All of these cases arose from student-to-student interactions.

      At one time, schools had fairly simple responsibilities: keep students in an orderly environment and deliver instruction. Now schools are responsible for keeping each individual child from any potential "harm" that might arise from the school site, faculty and staff, outside intruders, other students, society in general, and even students themselves. And now "harm" means anything from physical assault to "psychological distress."

      The only other kinds of organizations that accept this kind of responsibility (and authority) over individuals are prisons and mental institutions. No surprise that schools are beginning to resemble both ...
      terry flores
      • One small piece missing

        While I agree with your post, it has to be the responsibility of the school if they institute procedures and systems to monitor and review, to not assume going into any incident that the student is guilty and for any indiscretion the punishment is standard across all arenas. Oral, written and internet cannot be different.
        rhonin
    • Profanity is not normal human behavior

      Huge flaw in your logic. Profanity is no more considered normal than any other indiscretion that takes place on a school campus. Just because there's verbal gay bashing rampant on any campus wouldn't mean that it now becomes the norm and can no longer be punished.
      ejhonda
  • Simmering

    Methinks we are on the cusp of a social revolt where we, as social individuals, push back against authority and the authoritive misuse of their "perceived powers".

    This attempted repression of rights is getting out of hand.
    rhonin
    • What about the rights of the school?

      If student David Smith posts that he feels his teacher, Mrs. Jones, sucks at her job and should have better suited as a burger flipper, "he's just expressing his opinion, which is his right".

      If Mrs. Smith posts that her student, David Smith is a lazy student and likely won't get far in life, "she's over stepping her bounds, and should be fired, and the school district sued for emotional pain and suffering".

      Does this sound about right?
      William Farrel
      • Yes, it sounds entirely right.

        David Smith in your example only speaks for himself.

        The teacher, on the other hand, like or not speaks for the school. She also has access to information about her students that is NOT public record. So yes, she is over stepping her bounds where the student is not.
        cornpie
      • You're missing the obvious

        In either case, it wouldn't matter. Both tweets/status-updates are private, not public, so in either case, there is no case. After all, nobody is going to fire you for having x thought, so why should they fire you for having x tweet?
        marc van hoff
      • I disagree.

        Both comments are directed at an individual, so neither is appropriate.

        What are the teacher's right? That if you work for a school or company, individuals have the right to malign or slander you?

        Like it or not, the student doesn't run the school, and neither do the parents. The school has final say in what is considered "inappropriate" use of their systems that they are expected to maintain.
        William Farrel
  • i know the feeling

    My friend and I were kicked out of college for 2 years for comments on twitter. It is not right for them to spy on social medias people have the right to their own opinion no matter what is said.
    njk7
    • If you say it publicly...

      ...then it's not spying to listen.
      John L. Ries
  • Welcome to the 21st century

    Where on one side you have idiots that think it's their right to bag on anyone they choose to and use worldwide public forums to do it. Stupid in the extreme, why yes.

    And on the other side you have idiots who think they have to respond to every little thing just in case another idiot sues them into non-existence. Again, stupid in the extreme.

    All this and not an ounce of thought wasted on acting sensibly by anyone. You can't even send people to Australia for the rest of their natural as a punishment for idiocy any more. Apparently the place is liveable these days, so they might even like it.
    ego.sum.stig
  • Poor case to cite as an example...

    What the student said, while crude, couldn't remotely be construed as being directed at any other individual or entity (school employee, student or the school itself). It's pretty easy to side with the student, because there's really no harm to anyone and the punishment seems quite excessive.

    But, I wonder if reactions would differ had the student's actions been a a continuation and/or admission of harrassment of another that occurred on school grounds. That scenario has much more "gray area."

    At the end of the day, if school resources are used, the school has a right, and some might argue an obligation as well, to make sure that those resources aren't used in a manner that's in conflict with their objective of providing their students with an education in a safe environment conducive to learning.

    As for monitoring social media outside of school hours, if the students don't leverage the privacy controls, then it's fair game. I'm not necessarily saying for punishment for profanity, but public profiles and accounts can offer valuable insight into what's going on in schools that shouldn't be. Drugs, violence, bullying, mental and physical abuse, rape, etc. don't check themselves at the school doors when students walk through, so again, it's a gray area.

    Best advice to students, don't use school resources, use privacy controls on social media and better yet, don't post things (at all) that you might regret later.
    TroyMcClure
    • Of course reactions would be different.

      A key point here is that the student was expelled for speech on social media that would not resulted in an expulsion if the same speech were delivered while standing in the hallway in the school.

      My point is that speech is speech and there are certain lines that can't be crossed. For example deliberately inciting others to to commit crimes or making explicit threats is illegal. But it makes absolutely no difference whatever weather the speech is on a social media web site, written on a piece of paper and put in the mail, or delivered while standing on a soap box on a street corner.

      Making speech on social media somehow different than other speech and inflicting different standards on it is what the problem is here.
      cornpie
      • It still needs to be segregated

        based on minor vs. adult.
        We are seeing a blurring of lines between these for minor offenses.
        rhonin
      • That's why...

        I said it was a poor example to cite when the blog is headlined "Do schools have the right to expel students for tweets?"
        TroyMcClure