Should Schools Punish Students for What They Put on Facebook?

Aug 09, 2011

Students of all ages devote a great deal of their time to social networking sites, using them as platforms to share photos of what they've been up to, tell friends where they are and even vent about their teachers. Schools are now being forced to figure out if it's their job to discipline students who post or say inappropriate things online, even when it happens off of school grounds.

by Jessica Lyons


Student Use of Social Networking

Regardless of the grade a student is in, chances are that he or she has a computer at home, providing easy access to the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook. Once students are home from school, they frequently can get online and start messing around on Facebook, sometimes without any supervision from a parent. This means they are free to do just about anything - post angry comments over a grade their teacher gave them, share unfounded accusations about administrators or harass and bully fellow students through their comments.

Jurisdiction lines start to get blurred because, although these acts may be happening at home during students' free time, the actions impact schools. What may start as an argument between students off school grounds can be brought into the building when the students see each other. Or, during the school day teachers may feel the need to address comments made about them online. In other cases, even before the problem has actually made its way to the school environment, administrators might know about it and feel like they need to take preventative measures.

Mixed Messages

Unfortunately for schools, there still is no definitive answer about how they should handle these situations. One source of mixed signals seems to be from parents. Some media reports detail parents turning to the schools for action and asking them to handle the situation, while other reports explain that parents have sued schools for taking disciplinary action against students for things that happened off of school grounds.

Court rulings have also given schools different messages. For instance, in the 2007 case Layshock vs. Hermitage School District, the courts found that one school could not discipline a student who had created a fake MySpace page of his or her principal. However, the 2008 case Doniger vs. Nichoff found that it was permissible for a student to be punished for a blog posting that criticized administrators.


Who Should Be Responsible?

There are different factors to consider when determining who should handle negative actions performed on social networking sites. If it is something that happened off school property, it could be the job of the parents to handle the issue, whether that means talking to their child or another child's parents or taking disciplinary action. In severe cases where criminality is suspected, the incidents might need to be reported to the police for further investigation. However, when it's something that happens at school, school officials could have no choice but to get involved.

Preventative Measures

Until a definitive decision has been made about how to handle these situations, parents and schools can get involved in addressing hurtful uses of social networking sites before they actually become problems. If schools hold assemblies or discuss the ramifications of what students say or do online in classes it might cause students to think about what they're doing first. Parents can also help educational efforts by sitting down and talking to their children about the impact their actions have on others and potential consequences. Additionally, parents should be hands-on and monitor their children's online activities.

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