JOLIET, Ill. – An Illinois law approved in 2014 gives school officials the ability to demand social media passwords from students, but principals and others charged with taking action to protect students don’t seem inclined to use their new authority unless absolutely necessary.
The law is intended to give school leaders another avenue to investigate and crack down on bullying, but Plainfield School District 202 spokesman Tom Hernandez told MySuburbanLife.com the district hasn’t had problems dealing with students’ social media activity in the past.
“We’ve had those kind of situations and we have responded in that regard and we’ve had kids suspended and even expelled on things that have happened on social media,” Hernandez said. “That’s not new.”
Brian Schwartz, associate director and legal counsel for the Illinois Principals Association, told the news site he doesn’t believe school officials should seek students’ social media passwords because it would be an invasion of privacy, in most circumstances.
“I think the message has been heard and I think school officials realize there are better ways to get information they need,” he said.
Joliet Public Schools District 86 attorney Nick Sakellariou believes school officials must differentiate between students’ on-campus and off-campus activities before requesting passwords. Fights that occur off-campus, for example, haven’t been cause for student discipline in the past, he told My Suburban Life.
“If that activity then spills into the classroom and come Monday, these same kids are being disruptive, well then, you have some authority to impose discipline,” he said. “In the cyberworld, I think the same thing is true.”
At the same time, Sakellariou said, he can foresee the possibility of parents suing schools that request social media passwords on constitutional grounds because many believe the law violates students’ First Amendment rights.
That slippery legal slope likely is a major reason why some believe principals and other school officials will shy away from requesting students’ social media passwords.
“This is generally not an authority that school districts want to have, or that school attorneys would advise them to use very often at all,” Sonja H. Trainor, director of the Council of School Attorneys, told Ed Week.
And there’s plenty of examples of schools that have delved into monitoring students’ social media only to regret the decision later.
According to Ed Week:
In Minnesota, a student won a $70,000 settlement in March of last year from the 1,100-student Minnewaska Area school district after being forced to give school officials access to her Facebook account; in California, the 29,800-student Lodi Unified district came under harsh criticism for a policy that allowed school athletic coaches to suspend athletes for inappropriate postings made via social media; and in Alabama, the 23,000-student Huntsville City schools came under scrutiny following reports that it paid a security firm to monitor students’ public social-media posts.
Beyond the obvious potential free-speech issues, social media and digital privacy lawyer Bradley S. Shear told Ed Week that once school officials stick their noses in students’ business online, they could find themselves with more problems than they bargained for.
“Mr. Shear also raised the notion of the ‘slippery slope,’ asking what might happen, for example, if a school found evidence of illegal activity by a student’s family member while searching the student’s social media account,” Ed Week reports.
“Where do you draw the line?” Shear questioned.
Council of School Attorneys’ Trainor also reiterated those concerns.
“Once you get into the business of monitoring, then you’re potentially taking on liability for the things you might see,” she said.
“Any policy around student social media needs to be very, very cautious.”