Students and off-campus actions: When to discipline?

With the King County Prosecutor's decision to press charges this week, local and national media have been widely circulating the story of an Issaquah Middle School student who was the victim of a Facebook cyber attack by her classmates. Truly, this is a terrible occurrence, and everyone's first concern at Issaquah Middle School was to investigate and look after the welfare and learning environment of the victim. Without getting too in-depth (because we never can when it comes to student privacy), they talked with every student who might have been even be tangentially involved to determine the extent of any bullying on campus. They also worked with law officials to fully implement any legal orders resulting from the criminal proceedings and mediated/buffered interactions between students where necessary.

Amid these actions, many news outlets and community members focus on the same question: Why were the students who allegedly posted the lewd Facebook messages not disciplined at school ? It's a question, in fact, that is being asked more and more frequently in school districts across the nation as students interact with each other electronically outside the school day.

The answer is fairly well defined by Supreme Court cases, although the boundaries of that precedent are being tested in our new digital age. Schools do not have unlimited authority to reach outside of their walls and discipline students, especially when it comes to student expression outside of the school day and campus. In such a situation, the speech act must cause a "substantial disruption" to the school day for administrators to take any disciplinary measures—and that standard is especially high when it comes to denying students their right to free public education. For instance, a school would be far more likely to be within its legal authority if it stripped a student of her ASB position after she caused mass protests at school with an inflammatory post on her personal blog about how much she hates the principal; conversely, the school would be on shakier legal ground if it expelled the student for an inflammatory post on her personal blog about how much she hates the principal if only a handful of students were talking about it the next day. If a student spray-painted graffiti on a building at midnight, the school could not discipline the student the next day—although the school would work with police who came to campus to investigate (and the school would work with the student if s/he had to miss school because of incarceration).

In the case at hand at Issaquah Middle School, administrators found no substantial disruption to the school day resulting from the Facebook crime. In the days following, the investigation and subsequent media activity certainly elevated the level of awareness about the incident, but that is not a direct cause that can be applied to the legal standard.

In such a situation, it can certainly appear that the school's inability to discipline students for off-campus speech is a sign that it does not care about what happens to its students after hours. But that is not true. Principals and every adult on campus care deeply, and they will go out of their way to support the students involved within their legal authority.

At Issaquah Middle School in this particular case, administrators want to continue to emphasize the parent partnerships they have been forming all year to promote Internet safety and anti-bullying. These include:

  • Having all sixth-graders discuss Internet safety with Stefanie Thomas, a Seattle Police Officer in charge of Internet crimes; upperclassmen had the same presentation the year prior.
  • Promoting an all-school Internet safety week in February that included posters spread across the campus, daily morning announcements, and booklets distributed to students (Heads Up: Stop, Think, Click) and parents (Net Cetera).
  • Reviewing all school harassment, bullying, and Internet-use policies at the beginning of the year and having students sign off on the training. 
  • Implementing an extensive anti-bullying program that includes "Walk About" parents who promote a positive environment every morning and lunch period. 

Ultimately, everyone in the community wants the same thing in a terrible situation like this—for the victim of the intimidation and bullying to feel safe, confident, and unburdened; and for the bullying actions to stop for good. When the action occurs off school grounds/time and does not impact the school day, we will not be able to intervene with direct discipline; but we can do our best to support the students involved, mediate a resolution, assist any criminal proceedings, and monitor the school climate for the welfare of all the students.