Should schools police student conduct on the Web if the conduct takes place off campus?
At Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, the policy on Internet usage says that students can be held accountable for what they say or post online, even if the action occurs away from school.
"We're extending our standards online," school president John Birney said. "We would expect them to conduct themselves online the same as they would in person."
The policy is stricter than those for most schools, which typically regulate Internet use among students only at school. So far at Brother Rice, no students have been expelled under the policy, though the all-boys Catholic school reserves that right.
"Reluctantly, I think schools do have a role; it's part of their curriculum," said Kim Steed of Beverly Hills, the mother of a 13-year-old in the Birmingham Public Schools. She said students don't realize the Internet isn't private, despite what they've been told by parents or in class.
Protecting students is goal
With most students communicating via the Internet today, the issue of how to protect them from the consequences of inappropriate online activities is more critical than ever.
The quick threat issued during an emotional outburst or the risqué photo sent as a joke can quickly become a nightmare that haunts students for years.
But who's responsible for monitoring -- and disciplining -- students if they engage in improper Internet activity?
"I think they should notify the parents and let them handle it," said Robin Spodney of Bingham Farms, who has two children, ages 13 and 16, in the Birmingham school district. "It's just like passing notes, but it can be very destructive."
There's no consistent policy for how the education community in metro Detroit handles the issue.
Brother Rice High School's Internet policy, for example, takes a broad view, holding students accountable for their Internet behavior outside of school, as well as inside, if the post involves the school. The school has established the right to discipline -- and even expel -- students for their behavior online.
"I don't think we are restricting people's First Amendment rights," said John Birney, president of the private all-boys school. He acknowledged that it is probably easier for a private or parochial school to have a far-reaching policy, "but just like businesses have expectations of behavior for their employees, I think schools, the same way, have concerns. We think discipline is very important to our learning experience, to raise boys to be gentlemen."
Birney said the Web provides a certain amount of anonymity that tends to lead teens into thinking that a different set of rules of conduct may apply.
Spodney's daughter, Rachel Spodney, agrees. She said it's easier for kids to be rude online. "You wouldn't have the feelings you would have" in a "face-to-face" conversation, the Berkshire Middle School eighth-grader said. "Anybody can see it if you put it out there. Other kids can forward it."
Fara Warner, a University of Michigan lecturer on Internet communications, takes issue with the idea of a school disciplining students for off-campus Web activities. "That's sort of like censoring kids," Warner said.
But she said that even college students are starting to be cautious about the Web.
"I think there has been quite a shift in my students that what you put on Facebook is public, and there are consequences," Warner said.
For example, she said, she's beginning to see students be reluctant to allow their photo to be placed on someone else's Facebook page, where they have no control over who sees it.
"I think they're starting to get it," Warner said.
Most school Internet policies stop at the school door.
"We do not define what they use their home computers for. I don't know how you could actually enforce that," said Jim Casteel, director of technology at Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. "That's up to a parent to monitor their student at home."
Marcia Wilkerson, communications director for Birmingham Public Schools, said school officials address Internet issues that affect the school, and students must sign a policy banning Internet bullying. "But we don't have anything written that says what they can and can't do on their computer at home," Wilkerson said.
Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist with the American Life Project, said students don't completely understand that the Internet is not private.
"That's the pain and the peril of digital material. ... It's easy to alter, and it has a tendency to persist," Lenhart said.
Detroit attorney Cliff Woodards, who represented a group of Belleville students expelled over a 2007 Facebook photo in which they posed with what were later found to be fake weapons and white powder, said schools should put clear policies in their student codes of conduct.
"We do have the right of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but of course, that's not an absolute right," Woodards said. "Schools are beginning to understand the power of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace."
Contact PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI: 313-222-8851 or firstname.lastname@example.org