Take care in handling student Internet behavior
A state school board committee is considering revision of student misconduct rules to include Internet postings.
AN alleged plot by five high school boys in Kansas to kill students and teachers on the seventh anniversary of the Columbine massacre has put schools on the alert nationwide. Much of the violence escalates on the Internet, including videos of fights involving Hawaii students
. Schools should carefully craft policies to recognize and act on such cyber- violence without infringing on free-speech rights.
Authorities were notified of the plot in Riverton, Kan., by a North Carolina woman who chatted with one of the suspects online at MySpace.com. They said a message posted on the Web site said that "people should wear bulletproof" vests and flak jackets. At Columbine, authorities learned of Internet postings too late.
YouTube.com includes a video of two girls, described as Farrington High School students, in a fight while students cheer. At the same site, two boys identified as Waipahu students are shown fighting. In March, taunting on the Internet between Campbell High and Farrington students resulted in a confrontation leading to several arrests.
The Board of Education has created a committee led by member Darwin Ching, a former Honolulu prosecutor, to discuss the issue with police, lawyers, school officials and others. The committee intends to revise the policy on student conduct to address the problem. The committee must decide where free-speech rights end and disciplinary action begins.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided in 1969 with students who wore armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War. It ruled that students face restraint only when "engaging in the forbidden conduct would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school."
The high court has not ruled on students' Internet behavior, and lower courts have come down on both sides. They generally have ruled that Internet postings away from school might be disruptive if, for example, the student has linked the Web site to the school, distributed the content at school or called for on-campus disruption.
A 16-year-old high school student in Utah spent seven days in jail for posting parodies on the Internet and calling the principal "a town drunk." He was charged with violating Utah's criminal libel statute, which the state's Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional. A 14-year-old girl in Ohio was expelled for posting online sexually laced pages pretending to depict a principal and teacher, but a judge ordered her reinstated last month.
Courts have ruled that a "true threat" is not protected speech. Sheriff's deputies said they found guns, ammunition, knives and coded messages in the bedroom of one of the suspects in the Kansas case.
In many cases the violence comes from unpopular students who have been bullied and want revenge. School officials and parents need to be alert to such cries for help on and off the Internet.