School Districts, Parents Face Tough Decisions on MySpace, Technology
> 3/3/2006 9:01:24 AM

A new case in California is presenting parents and administrators at a public school with tough decisions regarding the use of technology and threats of violence. This new situation centers around a MySpace group created by one user and joined by 20 other students. On the popular social networking site, users are able to create groups around any topic and then invite others to join. In many cases this practice helps cement loyalty to a band or sports team. In this case, the student in question created a group that espoused violent hatred of a female classmate.

The name of the group caused the initial stir: "I hate (girl's name)," the group name also included an expletive and an anti-Semitic reference. However, the contents of the group page have disturbed the parents and teachers involved even further. The AP reports:
A later message to group members directed them to a nondescript folder, which included a posting that allegedly asked: "Who here in the (group name) wants to take a shotgun and blast her in the head over a thousand times?"

The students have been suspended since mid-February, and the district is seeking the expulsion of the student responsible for forming the group. Moreover, police are investigating the boys actions as a hate crime. As we have mentioned earlier in this space, technologies like MySpace, Instant Messenger and even email have changed the way that we interact, and in so doing have morphed the rules of engagement for adolescents and teens. Bully has taken to the web, and intimidation can now come in any number of shapes and electronic sizes. Threats that may have at one time been relegated to personal diaries and conversations with friends are now trumpeted across the net, as in this case from Rhode Island.

The key issue in this particular instance, according to parents, is that the students did nothing wrong on school grounds, and therefore the district has no jurisdiction to suspend or expel them. The counter argument made by the school district is that the MySpace site directly threatened the safety of a student and therefore required swift action, i.e. removal of the offending students. In some earlier cases, like this one, the ACLU has defended suspended students, claiming their first amendment rights protected them from disciplinary action. However, in the case of the Littleton, CO, student the comments made were much more innocuous, mocking his school and mentioning no students by name. Under the threat of a federal lawsuit, the district reinstated the student after serving less than half of his suspension.

Chances are, the California middle school student, who authorities will thankfully not mention by name due to his age, will not be reinstated. The threat of violence, and the graphic nature of the threats made to a specific target take this case above and beyond the more questionable calls that districts have had to make in the past. These new technologies are presenting administrators with new challenges every week. School districts must respond with very specific guidelines about what they expect from students both while they are in school and while they are at home. The debate will most likely hinge on whether the internet, as some folks in Littleton argued, can be considered part of the overall learning environment, and therefore when students post harassing, mocking or even threatening things online they are in fact disturbing that learning atmosphere. There will not be any easy answers, and districts will be forced to be flexible and learn along with parents. Discussing these issues with students may help create a more open dialogue and educate decision makers about some of the attitudes and behaviors that they need to understand.

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