The Lake County school district in suburban Chicago is the latest school board to go on the offensive against social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. On Monday night, the Community High School District 128 board unanimously passed rules changes that will make students at Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools accountable for any "illegal or inappropriate" material they post to blogs or MySpace pages, according to a district spokesperson.
Students who are active in extracurricular activities, from team sports to school clubs, will have to sign a pledge agreeing that if any evidence of illicit behavior is found on their pages they could be disciplined. According to District 128 officials, about 80 percent of the district's 3,200 students are involved in one or more extracurriculars.
"By adding the blog sites [to the student codes of conduct], we wanted to raise discussions on the issue," Associate Superintendent Prentiss Lea told the Chicago Tribune; school officials would not comment to MTV News about the rules changes or specify what the disciplinary actions could entail.
"We have taken the first steps to starting that conversation," Lea said. He said the changes are part of an effort by the district to alert the community to the presence of blogs and sites like MySpace and any potential dangers they might pose to students. Over the past year, a number of private schools have instituted rules governing what students can post on their blogs, threatening them with suspension or possible expulsion for posting about school officials or activities (see "Catholic School Principal To Students: Thou Shalt Not Blog").
Ed Yohnka, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the organization is keeping a close eye on the rules change. "We're still trying to get a handle on it, but we think it's clear that a school could look at a Web site and try to discipline a student for a specific kind of activity that's illegal, like drinking, drugs, violence," said Yohnka. "And a district could probably use that to enforce rules in terms of extracurricular activities. But the thing of real concern at this point is what the heck does this thing of 'inappropriate' language mean? Inappropriate language could be something that is clearly free speech and protected."
Another concern is the extension of school oversight beyond the physical bounds of campus. "The courts have given wide latitude to schools to punish students for off-campus behavior, but this is not behavior, this is speech," Yohnka said.
While some parents applauded the move and said it will help hold students accountable for what they post online, the only person to speak during the public-comment period at Monday's meeting said it was an invasion of the students' privacy.
As parents, "we have to watch what they're doing," said mother Mary Greenberg, whose son attends Libertyville High, according to the Tribune. "I don't think they need to police what students are doing online. That's my job."
District officials said they will not regularly surf students' sites for rules violations, but they will monitor them if they get a tip from another student, a parent or a community member alerting them to a potential issue.
The pledge — which both students and parents must sign — will be used for all activities for the upcoming school year. The wording asks students to agree that they won't use alcohol, tobacco or drugs or "exhibit gross misconduct or behavior/citizenship that is considered detrimental to his/her team or school." Additionally, it says that, "maintaining or being identified on a blog site which depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior will be considered a violation of this code."
Word of the pledge came as a student in another Chicago school district was facing possible expulsion for something he posted on his Xanga.com site.
According to the Tribune, the attorney for an unnamed 17-year-old student who was suspended for 10 days for comments he posted about Plainfield School District 202 said he is now facing expulsion because of his latest posts.
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday to determine if the student will be kicked out of school, said attorney Carl Buck.
"They are trying to terminate his educational rights," Buck told the Tribune. "Neither the parents, student or I believe this warrants expulsion. This seems pretty aggressive for the kind of [posting] we are talking about here."
The student was suspended from school earlier this month after posting a letter criticizing the discipline of another student, according to Buck. He also posted a letter to school administrators saying his opinions were being stifled and that he was being bullied into removing information on his blog.
"Did you ever stop to think that maybe now you really are going to have a threat on your hands now that you have just [ticked] off kids for voicing their opinions?" one of his postings read. "The kids at Columbine did what [they] did because they were bullied."
It was one of several letters criticizing school administrators for trying to regulate postings on the site. During his suspension, his parents received a letter saying the school district is considering expelling him. The student will be allowed to tell his side of the story at the hearing, but Buck said the threat of expulsion is unfair because the student posted his opinions on a site not accessible on school computers and never named any specific administrator or threatened any violent action.
"We are talking about personal activity here," Buck told the Tribune. "What is done off campus is his right."
School district officials would not comment on the case, but they said they do not monitor student sites or investigate postings unless they create a disturbance at school. "When a posting creates a disturbance to the educational environment, or threatens the safety and security of students or staff members, it is the responsibility of the school district to look into the matter," according to a statement. "The district respects the First Amendment rights of our students, but not all words can be categorized as protected speech."