Escalating online student feud leads to suspensions at Minnesota high school

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that ten Coon Rapids High School students have been suspended after a volley of harassing comments and threats on Facebook, the latest in a string of incidents that have jolted the Anoka-Hennepin School District over the past two years. The online dispute, which involved students posting invective and obscenity-laced insults, escalated into a shouting match on a stairway at the school before teachers intervened. The students, who have not been identified, are serving three- to 10-day suspensions, said district spokesman Brett Johnson.

Although the district is facing a lawsuit and a federal investigation over allegations of student harassment based on sexual orientation, none of the Facebook exchanges was related to the students’ sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or any of the district’s other protected classifications, said Johnson and Coon Rapids Principal Annette Ziegler. District officials did not go into details of the Facebook entries, which have been deleted. They said only that while the insults were serious enough to warrant disciplinary action, they did not require police involvement.

The Anoka-Hennepin district has put a focus on anti-bullying efforts this year, including staff training that stresses increased vigilance and communication. The recent Facebook episode occurred not long after students watched a video about online etiquette. District officials said there did not appear to be clear-cut perpetrators or victims in this situation, that all of them engaged in name-calling or threats. The length of suspension depended on the extent of each student’s involvement, and on his or her disciplinary history, district officials said.

Teachers and administrators can’t monitor demeaning or bullying behavior that occurs off campus, as Anoka-Hennepin district policy draws the line at where behavior affects the learning environment. In addition to the shouting match, some of the Facebook activity occurred during school hours.

Nancy Riestenberg, state school climate specialist, said parents should have explicit conversations with their kids about behavior on the Internet, because it is not behavior that is naturally modeled, the way other manners are. “No one stands over their mom’s shoulder while she writes an e-mail or posts on Facbook.”

Source: Star Tribune, 11/17/11, By Maria Elena Baca and Emma Carew Grovum

[Editor's Note: The Coon Rapids incident provides another example of how off-campus, online activity spills over onto school grounds requiring school officials to address the off-campus speech in order to maintain order and safety in school. In November 2011, Legal Clips reported that the National School Boards Association, along with other education groups, had asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear a much-publicized case involving student off-campus online speech, Blue Mountain Sch. Dist. v. J.S. (consolidated with Hermitage Sch. Dist. v. Layshock). 

Citing confusion among federal courts regarding the standard that applies to public schools’ regulation of student speech that originates off campus, and often online, NSBA said, “This Court’s guidance is critical to assisting school officials in understanding how they may regulate the student expression that now pervades social networking forums without contravening the time-honored principles of the First Amendment.”]

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