Do schools have the right to expel students for tweets?

Swear in a school corridor, detention. Swear on Twitter, expulsion.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on

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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