Amy Crawford | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Monday, January 17, 2011
Like many of her peers, Hempfield Area senior Ali Weatherton uses the social networking website Facebook nearly every day.
“The first thing I do when I come home is check Facebook,” said Weatherton, 17, who called the site “addictive.”
But though Facebook makes it easy to keep in touch with friends, Weatherton has discovered that the constant connection has its downside.
For most of her junior year, Weatherton was harassed online by a jealous former friend and her allies, who posted insults on Facebook and made fun of the clothes Weatherton wore to school.
“It got really embarrassing,” she said.
Though the bullies did most of the tormenting through Facebook, their reach was not confined to the Internet. The stress caused Weatherton to suffer seizures, and she was afraid to attend school activities.
“It had a real impact on my life,” Weatherton said. “I didn’t want to go to school some days.”
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, children age 8 to 18 spent more than seven and a half hours a day using entertainment media, including computers and smartphones. But as young people live more and more of their social lives in the realm of technology, the negative elements of middle and high school life are following them there.
While most schools forbid students from using cell phones and sites such as Facebook during school hours, educators are increasingly dealing with the fallout of online bullying and what teens term “drama” that begins off campus. There are criminal laws against true threats, stalking and harassment, but bullying that does not go far enough for police to step in still can have a devastating impact.
In October, after a spate of highly publicized suicides by students who had been bullied, the U.S. Department of Education warned schools that they could face sanctions if they fail to prevent bullying based on discrimination.
But though they are under pressure to stop bullies, school officials face a dilemma, because students have First Amendment rights that limit schools’ power over what they say off campus.
“One of the top problems facing school districts all over the state is controlling technology,” said David Andrews, an Altoona lawyer whose firm, Andrews and Beard, has provided legal advice for more than 100 school districts in Pennsylvania.
Andrews has advised districts about social networking policies for students and teachers, but because the technology is new and the law unclear, many districts have struggled with the issue.
“I think that the law is absolutely confusing right now,” said Sara Rose, a staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which advocates against limits on freedom of speech. “The courts are all over the map on where to go.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that schools can punish students for speech that disrupts education, there is less precedent for cases that involve off-campus speech on the Internet.
“Schools and students really need some guidance from the courts,” Rose said.
That guidance may come from a decision expected this year in a pair of cases reviewed by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
In one of the cases, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, Justin Layshock, a Mercer County high school student, created a parody profile of his principal on the social networking site MySpace. When the principal learned about the parody, which used crude language to make fun of his size, Layshock was suspended.
With representation provided by the ACLU, Layshock and his parents sued, arguing that the school had exceeded its reach because the Web page was created off campus. In 2007, a federal district judge found in the Layshocks’ favor, and in February of this year a panel of three judges from the 3rd Circuit agreed.
The facts of the case were nearly identical to one involving Blue Mountain School District, but in that 2007 case a district judge and a 3rd Circuit panel found in favor of the district. Because of the contradiction, both cases were argued before the full 3rd Circuit court in June. It has yet to issue a decision.
Meanwhile, because cyberbullying is more serious than lampooning faculty, schools are doing their best to combat it while treading lightly on students’ rights and their parents’ rights to be disciplinarians at home.
One strategy is education. Richard Shaheen, a senior supervisory special agent with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, gives presentations at Southwest Pennsylvania schools to make students and their parents aware of the dangers children and teens can encounter when they use technology.
“We had bullying growing up. We didn’t have cyberbullying,” he told a group of parents gathered at Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville.
Recalling an instance where a dozen middle school students in another district got into a fight after texting insults to each other all day, Shaheen said, “Nobody got a break all day long. Because we have the ability to affect someone’s life 24/7, these kids never get away from it.”
Robin Pynos, Greater Latrobe’s director of technology, said her district is working to educate students about bullying and teachers about Facebook.
“We do block these websites,” Pynos said, “but, as you know, they go home and use them. Unless it comes into the school system, with fighting or word that there’s going to be a fight, we can’t really do anything.”
Still, Pynos encouraged students to go to a teacher if they have been bullied online.
“If it gets brought to a teacher’s attention, I think they should step in and deal with it,” Pynos said, explaining that, even if a student cannot be suspended, a phone call to the bully’s parents may help.
“A lot of times, if kids know an adult’s been made aware, they’ll back off,” Pynos said.
It’s also important to recognize that the Internet is not all bad, said Sidney Alvarez, communications director for the Avonworth School District.
Avonworth school computers block Facebook, and the district is educating students about cyberbullying and working on an advisory policy for off-campus student computer use.
But because students — and their families — are living more of their lives online, Avonworth is making its own forays into social networking, with an official Facebook page that showcases student work and communicates with district residents.
“We think of it as a billboard,” Alvarez said. “Technology can be a wonderful thing, but you have to use caution, and that’s what we do.”
Ali Weatherton, the Hempfield senior, continues to use Facebook, and she said she has learned to ignore online bullies. For her senior project, she is working to educate younger students about cyberbullying and Internet safety, in the hopes that they don’t suffer as she did.
But Weatherton has a 7-year-old niece, and many of the girl’s first-grade classmates already have Facebook accounts.
“I’m really trying my hardest not to get her on it,” Weatherton said. “I think it is more drama than you should have to deal with.”