Finding the right balance between keeping students safe and letting them explore their world digitally was the focus of an April 21 session during the National School Boards Association’s 72nd annual conference, in which NSBA senior staff attorney Sonja Trainor gave advice on how school districts can open their doors to technology without getting sued.
Cracking down on cyber bullying or harassment, searching students’ cell phones or laptops, and filtering school internet access are some of the areas where educators can get into trouble if they don’t know their proper legal boundaries, Trainor said. Here’s what she had to say about each of these areas.
Cyber bullying and harassment
When school leaders discipline students for using technology inappropriately, this discipline is challenged most frequently when the use of technology occurred off campus, Trainor said.
On campus, the courts have ruled that schools have the right to regulate…
• Speech or actions that are disruptive or that interfere with the rights of others (Tinker);
• Lewd or vulgar speech or actions (Frasier);
• School-sponsored speech or activities, such as a school newspaper (Hazelwood); and
• Activities associated with illegal drug use (Morse).
Off campus, it’s more problematic, as a pair of recent court cases indicates—and unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year declined to step in and provide some clarity on the issue.
The High Court let stand the suspension of a West Virginia high school student who created a web page that suggested another student had a sexually transmitted disease and then invited classmates to comment. The court also left alone separate rulings that said schools could not discipline two Pennsylvania students for MySpace parodies of their principals that the students created at home.
However, all states except Montana now have school bullying ordinances, Trainor said, and many of these laws also address cyber bullying. School leaders should be aware of their state’s laws regarding bullying via traditional or electronic means and make sure they are in compliance.