Social media throws up new hurdles in student privacy

It can be a difficult task: Protecting student safety without violating student privacy.

Teachers, principals and other school staff have been empowered by policies that allow them to search students’ backpacks, cellphones and other communication devices if there’s reason to believe a violation of laws or school rules.

Yet social media pages like Facebook have created a whole new world of potentially thorny legal issues.

That collision of safety versus privacy occurred when Samantha Negrete, 14, an eighth-grader at Everett’s North Middle School, reportedly was called into the vice principal’s office and pressured into showing him posts on her Facebook page.

The vice principal was investigating a case of cyber-bullying. A student was later suspended. But Samantha’s mother said the girl was never involved and never should have been asked to open up the Facebook page without a parent being involved.

It’s an incident that has caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. An attorney for the organization called it “likely illegal and most certainly improper.”

It has also led Everett School Board members to consider whether new policies are needed. And other school districts around Snohomish County are paying attention to how the situation plays out and whether they should act, too.

A review of the incident is under way, led by an outside investigator and paid for through an insurance program of Washington schools.

“When there’s some incident like this, the school board is interested in the policies that connect to it,” said Jeff Russell, Everett School Board president.

Once there’s a report on what happened, Russell said he would talk with Superintendent Gary Cohn to see if there’s a need to change any school district policies.

“We value freedom of speech and at the same time we have the value of safety and security and providing an environment free of harassment and bullying,” he said.

As both goals are pursued, “we have to follow the law and the constitutionally protected rights of students,” Russell said. “I think everybody will get a fast and rapid update on the laws of search and investigation.”

School board member Jessica Olson said she was troubled by the North Middle School incident.

“No minor or child should be asked to open his Facebook page without the parents there — ever,” she said.

Schools can always protect themselves in cases of imminent danger she said. “When you have a threat, you always call the authorities.”

Cyber-bullying is an issue facing schools across the nation, board member Ed Petersen said. “We do have board policies, but it needs to be balanced with the privacy needs of both staff and students.”

Fellow board member Pam LeSesne said she wants to hear the results of the investigation of what happened at North Middle School.

“At this point, I want to find out what our policies say,” she said. “If it is not an imminent threat to an individual or staff member or the school as a whole, we have to be very careful we do not invade someone’s privacy.

“People are entitled to privacy.”

Board member Carol Andrews could not be reached for comment.

Facebook is often used for cyber-bullying “so it’s a constant battle with schools,” said Andy Muntz, Mukilteo School District spokesman.

School district administrators would not view a student’s Facebook page unless the student or parent voluntarily showed it to an administrator, Muntz said.

Cyber-bullying often occurs in off-school hours, so students can’t be disciplined unless the post causes a substantial disruption at school, he said.

The school district did take action earlier this week when a middle school student created a spoof Facebook page with threats against other students. Mukilteo police were called in to investigate, Muntz said.

Students complaining of harassment in the Monroe school district have the option of opening their Facebook account or printing out the objectionable posts, said school district spokeswoman Rosemary O’Neil. “We don’t pick out young people who are uninvolved and involve them,” she said.

The Snohomish School District’s polices allow personal property, including backpacks, laptops and phones to be searched if there’s a reason to believe that the student has violated laws or school rules.

But there’s no specific rules for searches of social media sites, said Kristin Foley, school district spokeswoman.

“This is a very changing world,” she said. “This is something we’ll look at.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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