A Minnesota school district that forced a sixth-grade student to give up her email and Facebook passwords will be paying her $70,000 as settlement in a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota. The lawsuit claimed the student’s constitutional rights to privacy and free speech were violated.
Riley Stratton, now 15, was punished with in-school suspension because of comments she posted on Facebook saying she hated a teacher’s aide because she was mean. The comment was posted from home, using the girl’s own computer.
Then school officials received a complaint from a parent about a chat between their son and Stratton that was of a sexual nature. School administrators called Stratton in to the office and, with a sheriff’s deputy present, demanded her password and read her Facebook page from her cellphone. Stratton says she was in tears and very embarrassed.
Greg Schmidt, Minnewaska school superintendent, said administrators believed Stratton’s parents had given permission to look at her cellphone. But her mother says that, while the school did call that morning to discuss the other parent’s complaint regarding Riley’s chat with their son, they did not let her know that they were going to bring the sixth-grader in for questioning and examination of her Facebook account.
Schmidt, who was not in charge at the time, says the school’s intent was not to bully Stratton, but to “remedy someone getting a little off track.” He said the school wanted to send kids a message that their activities outside school can be damaging.
Attorney Wally Hike, who took the case pro bono for the ACLU, said the school’s actions violated Stratton’s right to free speech. He says she was punished for complaining to friends about school personnel and teachers, just as kids have done for 100 years, and that she was just expressing her feelings, not trying to get her friends to engage in bad behavior.
Hike says that while educators can look out for the best interests of students, they can’t discipline them for exercising their constitutional rights, which is what happened when the school forced Stratton to give up her Facebook password.
In a separate incident that occurred earlier this year, also in Minnesota, 17-year-old Reid Sagehorn was suspended after a twitter message that said he had “made out” with a teacher. Sagehorn has apologized and said that the comment was sarcasm and untrue. He was suspended for seven weeks and removed from the basketball and baseball teams, as well as the National Honor Society.
Sagehorn was also called to the school office and, with a police officer present, told that a parent had contacted the school to report a possible inappropriate relationship between him and a teacher. The local police chief said that Sagehorn could be charged with a felony for defamation, but later said he made a mistake, and no charges were filed. Sagehorn has changed schools since the incident.
As part of the Riley Stratton’s federal court settlement, Minnewaska schools agreed to change their policy about social media usage by students, and to provide training for teachers and school personnel.
Stratton is now home schooled, saying she was too embarrassed to return to public school. The $70,000 settlement from the school district is being divided between the ACLU and the Strattons, and school policy now says that electronic records and Facebook passwords of students that are created off-campus can only be searched if there is a reasonable suspicion that school rules have been violated.
By Beth A. Balen