Renegotiating School Boundaries in the Age of Social Networking

Article excerpt

Not a day goes by without a news story about the consequences of putting something online that would have, in the past, been private. The world of online social networking has developed so rapidly that conventions and boundaries have not evolved quickly enough to help everyone, but especially students and teachers, find the zone that provides both comfort and self-protection.

School officials have a difficult time, in the new communications environment, knowing what tools they have to deal with conflicts that arise from social networking. The wide reach of online communication gives a different meaning and effect to comments that have always been a part of the life of children and adolescents.

Formerly, the physical edge of the school grounds was the primary boundary for the schools' responsibility. But what happens, now, when activities carried out entirely outside those boundaries have an impact on the school and the people who work and study there?

Teachers and school officials are constantly negotiating the new conventions and rules, often with a great deal of pain either from the impact of a particular communication or the response toit.

Cyberbullying of other students and of teachers has been the most high profile of the problems. This is covered extensively in an article by Bernie Froese-Germain elsewhere in this issue. The approaches to the problem described there suggest education and policy to bring the issues to the fore and define new boundaries.

Sometimes the responses to problems go beyond policy and school discipline and end up in the legal system. Wendy Harris, a British Columbia-based lawyer who frequently acts for school districts, recently provided an outline of some of the legal aspects of the issues to a Vancouver meeting of Phi Delta Kappa.

Harris outlined three areas of the Canadian legal system relevant to online behavior. One, of course, is the Charter of Rights with its provisions of rights to free speech and equality rights. Another two are sections of the Criminal Code: section 264 on criminal harassment and section 261.1 on uttering threats. In addition, in B.C. and elsewhere, there are provisions in Workers' Compensation that give responsibility to an employer to avoid an unsafe workplace.

Very few cases related to student discipline flowing from online communication have ended up in the courts in Canada, Harris said. The U.S., with its more litigious traditions, has had a number of cases that frame the rights of the student and of the school authorities and have some relevance, even if they do not apply directly.

One issue has been the right of the school to discipline a student for out-of-school conduct. Pre-Internet, Harris said, cases essentially came down on the side of the school not having jurisdiction over the out-of-school speech of students, except where off- school conduct has a significant and negative effect at school.

Cases in the U.S. challenging administrative discipline of students for comments on their web sites essentially follow the pattern of weighing the impact in school. Criticism of the school has not in itself been sufficient for expulsion and fear of disruption of the school must be a reasonable fear. Discipline of a student for an online parody and another for tjoke obituaries," was overturned.

Harris said that in Canada there are "no reported decisions challenging a school's authority to discipline students for content of websites...yet."

Considerations on regulating student expression on the Internet

Harris provided a set of questions that should be considered by schools in attempting to regulate student expression:

* Is there a nexus to the school (e.g., did the student's conduct occur at school or away from school)?

* What is the content of the speech (e.g., is it political, lewd, offensive; does it promote violence; is it a school activity)?

* Does the content impact on the school environment or reputation of staff (e. …