Should Schools Punish Students for Their Activities Off-Campus?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Update: Karen Washington, a social studies teacher at Watertown High School in Massachusetts, used this story as the foundation for a classroom discussion. Here's what her students had to say.

In recent years, we’ve talked a lot about bullying in general and cyber-bullying in particular. And it’s come up over and over again: What’s the best way to prevent it and punish those involved in it?

A case in Griffith, Indiana brings even more questions to the table. The case involves two teenagers who had a lengthy exchange on their Facebook pages. They listed eight students and one teacher from their school that they’d like to kill. The exchange did not take place on the grounds of Griffith Middle School nor did it involve any of the school’s computer equipment. Nonetheless, the school expelled the two girls involved in the exchange. The girls, in turn, have sued the school for infringing on their free speech rights.

Among the biggest questions springing from this case are: Should students be punished for their cyber-activities off campus? It’s something that Wendy Kaminer has been mulling over. Kaminer is a lawyer, social critic, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. She’s also the author of seven books, including “Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU.” Regina Webb is the person who first got the Griffith Middle School involved in this case. Regina’s older daughter is one of the people whose name was listed as a potential mark in the Facebook exchange.


Wendy Kaminer and Regina Webb

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [7]

The Mommy Psychologist

There used to be a time when you could get away from bullying. But it's not that way anymore. For kids that are being bullied, it now follows them home and everywhere because so much of the bullying happens online. Lots of kids turn to drastic measures to either protect themselves or hurt themselves. It is so tragic. I talk about online bullying and suicide here:

May. 08 2012 01:36 AM

When I was a kid, I clearly remember my mom teaching me-- you don't say you're going to kill people. You may joke around about it from time to time-- and who hasn't?-- but you surely don't do it publicly or write it down, lest someone either take you seriously or something actually happens to the person and now everyone's looking at you. Do parents not put this message across anymore? Posting on Facebook outside of school may be akin to having a conversation at the mall, but it's more like getting on the PA system at the mall and announcing it than having a quiet conversation with friends.

I don't recall ever, in my life, hearing anyone joking about "man I could kill so-and-so" and having it go so far as to be saying things like "I have the implements here, let's go" and going into extreme detail about how to hide the evidence. These girls need mental help.

Methinks these girls are lucky Regina Webb didn't skip the principal and call the police instead-- it's surely what I would do if someone were threatening my life, online or elsewhere.

Ms. Webb is correct. Had these girls actually carried out their threats, everyone would be whining and crying as soon as they found out the intentions were posted on Facebook and nothing was done about it. I'd like to see what these girls look like-- I bet they're the pretty, popular girls. If they'd been band geeks or goth kids, they'd be in a therapist's office (or possibly a juvenile detention facility) faster than you can say "outcast" and no one would bother to defend their actions.

I wonder what the girls' parents think. If I'd ever done something like that, my mother would've made sure I wouldn't be able to walk or sit down for a month-- which is fine, because I wouldn't have been leaving the house or using the computer until I was 21 anyway. Instead, these girls' parents think the solution is to bring a lawsuit-- clearly it's not their darling daughters' fault!

Schools have been punishing kids for things done off-campus for years. Get into a fight with another kid or do something else troublesome? You'll probably get called onto the carpet for it at the principal's office-- especially if it happened on the way to or from school or another school event, even if you were nowhere near the school. It's been that way since I was a kid and probably long before. Why all the hoopla over it now?

May. 07 2012 11:04 PM
Shawn Hart

The situation with the Griffith Middle School is just another example of our preference of assuming we have all the pertinent information and of making a judgement based on very incomplete knowledge. So I will join my fellow lemmings and contribute my opinion.
1) Certainly these students should be held responsible for their "joke" - if they are so ignorant that they truly believed they were having a private conversation, then they have no business online. Either the students should take resposibility - or their parents should.
2) Since when does a publicly circulated vicious joke against a private individual NOT constitute a personal attack? To contend that the school is not the primary physical social venue for the individuals participating in that Facebook interaction is willful ignorance.
3) Schools (administrators and staff) do their level best to avoid liability these days. Taking the most defensible action and one that minimizes the individual staff member's exposure relects our society's practices.

May. 07 2012 12:16 PM
A.L. from New York City

This story is upsetting on so many levels. As a parent, mental health professional and college-level educator I see this from different perspectives at once. The bottom line is, the girls being threatened are entitled to a sense of safety in and out of school. These threats seem so specific that any reasonable person would fear for their lives. While expulsion can be considered extreme, I am concerned that without remediation, the agressors in this case will not learn that what they did was unacceptable. They are focusing their energies on the school and the legal system, rather than taking responsibility for abusing their right to free speech, and intimidating others. The school should have brought the parents and the girls together, and the parents should have been responsible for coming up with a plan for remediating the situation, with the school's approval and monitoring. Parents must take some responsibility for monitoring their childrens' activities, on and offline.

May. 07 2012 10:06 AM
Amy from Mpls, MN

I am interested to hear the full story. There are many tools to monitor your childrens activities online so it's hard for me to believe the parents of these two hate spouting children were not somewhat aware of their childrens behavior. What are the parents doing at home to rectify or identify the severity of their words and potential actions?

When did we start to protect hate speech, conspiracy to commit a crime? Did these girls need to actually hurt someone for us to act?

May. 07 2012 09:17 AM
John from Detroit, MI

This isn't a freedom of speech issue. The girls' ability to sound their free speech hasn't been curtailed: they can still post whatever they want on Facebook. What is at stake here is that their free speech has consequences. If the school had the ability to expel them from Facebook, yes, that would constitute a free speech impingement. The school simply exercised its ability to control behavior on campus--well within their jurisdiction.

May. 07 2012 09:01 AM
Jen Senko from NYC

These students must learn that talking like this and even thinking like this cannot be taken likely and is not looked upon well. Expulsion is not too light. How else are they going to learn how serious their comments were?

To go on; images in movies and on television tell them that violence is common place and therefore ok so 'authorities' have to say 'no, that is just entertainment. In real life, this is not acceptable'/

May. 07 2012 09:01 AM

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