For two weeks in March, students, teachers and administrators at Millennium High School in Goodyear were besieged with anonymous Facebook comments ridiculing their work ethic, social status, physical appearance and sexual relationships.
Because of Facebook's online-privacy policies and vague state laws governing such posts, officials were powerless to stop the comments, even though some felt they were disruptive to the school environment.
The Millennium case illustrates the difficulty administrators have in balancing student privacy, the right to freedom of expression and the need to protect young people from online harassment or bullying.
Nationally, concerns over cyberbullying have escalated after several high-profile cases in which teenagers committed suicide after being bullied online.
Although there's no evidence that students at Millennium High were pushed to the brink after the "Millennium High School Memes Page" was posted on Facebook, the comments were clearly crude and embarrassing. A meme is an idea or concept that becomes part of the culture after being transmitted on the Internet, often through photos or videos, like the popular LOLcats.
The Millennium page was created by anonymous users and featured comments and pictures accusing some teachers of engaging in child pornography and unprofessional conduct. Student names were splashed all over the page, along with comments about their social status, sex lives, sexual experiences and sexual orientation.
A page created on March 22 was removed after several students and school officials protested to Facebook because their names were published in embarrassing comments.
But another page surfaced on March 26, which Facebook officials refused to take down, Millennium Principal John Speer said.
District's hands tied
Cyberbullying and free-speech experts said memes like the Millennium page are an example of how social networks are an emerging jurisdiction problem for schools that want to stop bullying, electronic or otherwise, and lawmakers who fear encroaching on online free speech.
In the Millennium case, district officials say they are powerless to discipline the students without knowing who they are, and Facebook refuses to identify users, citing privacy rights, Speer said. Facebook officials did not return multiple requests for comment.
Another problem officials face is that the meme creators may have posted the pictures off campus with private computers.
Arizona has laws that protect against bullying and that require districts to investigate incidents and discipline students.
But state law doesn't give districts authority to discipline online activity that happens off- campus. That makes it difficult for districts to stop online behavior that is offensive or that bullies students and teachers.
Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2415, which prohibits harassment, bullying and intimidating with campus technology.
This year, the Legislature introduced House Bill 2549, prohibiting using any electronic communication with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten or harass a specific person. The bill, which passed the state Senate and was awaiting transmission to the Governor's Office on Monday, specifies that electronic communication includes any wired or wireless communication device. However, its sponsors say it is aimed more at cyberstalking than cyberbullying.
Experts criticized the initial bill as overly broad and said it restricted speech that, although offensive, should still be protected by law. The bill's initial language prohibited communications that were perceived as annoying or offensive.
On Monday, amendments to the bill included exemptions for constitutionally protected speech. Bill sponsors said they were trying to keep up with new technology that is used for stalking, particularly computers and smartphones.
"I don't believe the intent was cyberbullying. It was one-on-one harassment established consistently through traceable e-mail or phone contact," said Rep. Vic Williams, a Republican from northwestern Pima County, one of the bill's sponsors.
Williams said the bill's wording may be too broad, but its focus is not to restrict free speech or burden private networks like Facebook and other social-media sites.
Cyberbullying vs. speech
Sheri Bauman, director of the school-counseling master's degree program at the University of Arizona, researches cyberbullying and the challenges it presents for schools, parents and students.
"It is intentionally harmful," Bauman said, adding that the Millennium High School Memes Page had posts naming specific teachers and students that could create enough emotional response to justify discipline based on disruption of a school environment.
"Imagine being a teacher who was defamed or humiliated (online) and trying to stand up and teach or impose discipline on those students," Bauman said.
Another issue is that online comments can never be permanently removed. They can persist in cyberspace even after they're deleted and can crop up when employers search for names on the Internet, possibly affecting someone's ability to get a job, Bauman said.
"Ultimately, the courts haven't been helpful," Bauman said, adding that a district's best option is to provide students with anonymous- reporting resources and instruction about responsible online behavior.
Robert Schlosser, a teacher and department chair of international languages at Millennium, said he used the meme page to teach students about Internet protocol and communication. He was not identified on the page.
Schlosser talked to students about the page during their advisory lesson, a class designed to build rapport between students and faculty. He said most students felt personal attacks about specific people were inappropriate.
"We're addressing it and working through it together. I would say that we are definitely going to try to build our community at Millennium to be stronger because of that," Schlosser said.
Schlosser said, however, that he didn't feel the page was a disruption to the school environment because students were able to learn from the experience.
Free-speech experts say that disciplining private online behavior isn't an option because students and adults use it as a medium for the democratic right to free expression.
"Not just to say what you want, but the right to democratic expression and to criticize authority when they have legitimate concerns," said James Weinstein, a professor of constitutional law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU.
Weinstein said students' rights to free speech are treated differently from adults only if districts can prove that the speech has substantially disrupted the school environment.
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students don't shed constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. A district's burden of proof of a substantial disruption of the school environment was decided in the case of Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which students wore black armbands protesting the war in Vietnam.
The Des Moines Independent Community School District suspended the students, but the court upheld the students' right to free speech on campus. The case has since been used to gauge school disciplinary rights in relation to students' First Amendment rights.
Weinstein said courts are wary of restricting Internet activity. "The Supreme Court expressly recognizes the Internet as an essential medium of democratic discourse (and) has ferociously protected the Internet from government regulation," Weinstein said.
Officials for the Arizona School Boards Association shy away from advising districts to establish policies that give districts rights to discipline students who post online material off campus.
"The challenge for school officials is to show that there is a nexus with school. If you can show substantial conversation is occurring," said Chris Thomas, director of legal and policy services for the association.
Students on Facebook
Millennium High School Memes creators stated on the page that the comments they posted were free speech and thus protected by the First Amendment. As of March 30, the page had 419 "likes," more than 100 posts and photos, and several comments from students.
"Positive or negative, attention is attention. You get dissed," the anonymous administrator said in a post on March 28. The post tells critics they can't do anything to stop posts and orders them to "shut up" and stop complaining.
The page is currently unavailable, but it is unclear if Facebook or page administrators removed it. A similarly titled page is less abusive and has only a small following.
Some pictures described situations like being late for class, cutting in line at lunch or talking about prom. But other memes were sexually charged. Some refer to Millennium's freshmen as prostitutes or ask why none of them are virgins. Other posts make comments about specific students engaging in sexual acts and cheating on their partners.
Some students encouraged the material and called it funny. Others said posts should stop and called the posts harassment and bullying.
"They (page administrators) probably took it too far out of context," said Austin Glendinning, 16, a Millennium student who had seen the page but was not mentioned on it.
What schools can do
Dennis Runyan, superintendent of the Agua Fria Union High School District, said he believes that the memes page was a disruption but that the district is unlikely to take any action.
"We don't have the resources or the time," Runyan said.
Last month, Agua Fria district officials proposed a new technology policy that requires the district to instruct students about appropriate online behavior, including interaction with other individuals on social networks.
The policy only establishes monitoring and filtering systems for technology used on campus.
Millennium High School already monitors and filters certain websites on its school computers, but the district website does not contain any information concerning cyberbullying.
The district's governing board did not take formal action on the policy but will review it again this month.
by Eddi Trevizo - Apr. 30, 2012 11:03 PM The Republic | azcentral.com
Free speech, social media collide at Goodyear school
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