Cyberbullying is awful, that doesn’t mean schools should demand social media passwords

In Illinois there is much debate about whether schools can and should require social media passwords from students. A new law about cyberbullying that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015 is what sparked the discussion. I shared a post on the Tween Us Facebook page about it and Tween Us readers overwhelmingly felt that parents and not schools should be responsible for monitoring their children’s social media use.

Hear, hear! I found the idea of a law permitting schools districts to require passwords alarming for many reasons, including concerns about privacy, parental responsibility and whether school administrators have the time, resources and training to really understand and successfully navigate the ever-changing world of social media.

A little digging revealed that there is a lot of misunderstanding about these laws and what exactly is going on, so I’d like to clarify a bit.

First, the new language of the law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2015, Public Act 098-0801, specifically defines and adds cyberbullying to existing anti-bullying legislation that requires schools to address bullying. There is no provision in that law addressing student passwords. Cyberbullying can include activities that take place on devices not on school property and unreleated to a school activity, function, or program “if the bullying causes a substantial disruption to the educational process or orderly operation of a school.”

The law specifically states that it applies when administrators or teachers receive a report of cyberbullying and that it “does not require a district or school to staff or monitor any nonschool-related activity, function, or program.”

Second, a law that took effect most than a year ago on Jan. 1, 2014, Public Act 098-0129, stated that school administrators can ask for a student’s password to social media accounts if the school has reasonable cause to believe the student violated school rules and notice is given to the student and parents that the school may request or require a student to provide a password or other related account information, likely in the school handbook. Under those narrow conditions, schools can ask for passwords.

The drama amped up last week when KTVI of St. Louis reported here that the Triad Community Unity School District said, “we would be able  to get that password and get onto their account.”  The story said that it was the recently effective law that permitted the password collection but in fact, the law permitting that has been on the books for more than a year.

Many cheered the newly effective language extending the anti-bullying legislation to cyberbullying and the “news” that schools can get student’s passwords, including Bulldog Solution and Mary Tyler Mom, feeling it empowering schools to protect students from bullies.

Others of us, myself included, expressed concern about whether schools were overstepping into parental territory, what this meant for privacy (hello, slippery slope), whether school administrators are adequately informed about the latest social media channels students favor and whether lawmakers are at all aware that this law contradicts that Terms of Service of Facebook and other social media accounts that state passwords are to remain private.

I also wondered why I hadn’t heard more fuss about the law that took effect a year ago. So, I asked the ACLU how they feel about it. They directed me to a statement in the entitled “Calm Down.”

I have to say, I was surprised by that title.

It explains that the law leaves it “up to the schools to determine the policy. Triad wants passwords. No other district is identified in any story as asking for passwords. But even if they do copy that policy, it doesn’t mean they can legally get those passwords.”

Ed Yohnka at the ACLU of Illinois said, “[T]he headline here is that, despite some reporting, no law in Illinois permits the broad collection of students’ private passwords.”

“[A] report about a single school district demanding the usernames and passwords of students’ social media accounts created a firestorm across the blogosphere, raising fears that the new law permitted a dragnet collection of such data. Obviously this is not true. Indeed, during the course of the discussion on the measure, no one ever suggested that such a mass collection of data from students was permissible. This view has been reaffirmed by the primary sponsor of the measure,” explains Yohnka.

I admit, I raised an eyebrow at this. We’re cool with this? Because I think laws have been interpreted in ways they weren’t necessarily intended.

“The ACLU of Illinois opposed this measure out of concern that it created an expectation that school administrators now would become investigators not of activity that takes place within the school walls and during school hours, but also investigation of activities that take place outside of school hours, activities that have no connection to school,” Yonka continues. Okay, feeling better.

Not only is social media monitor not necessarily the role of a school administrator, I can’t imagine that they have time to do that. Also, are they aware of how to search the myriad of social networks students use these days? A few of the administrators with whom I’ve spoken have expressed discomfort and complete lack of familiarity with these sites and apps. That could be because Common Core implementation, figuring out the PARCC testing and all other kinds of educational hubbub seems to be pretty all consuming these days.

But the good feeling was short-lived. Yohnka also says, “We note your update, referencing the previous law that appears to require that a school notify parents and students that school may seek password information in some circumstances. We would note that the law suggests that the passwords would be sought only where there is some evidence (”reasonable cause”) of a disciplinary violation — and does not carry a penalty if the parent refuses.”

o the older law does seem to require it under those narrow conditions but there’s no penalty to the parent if there’s a refusal? I’m a bit baffled by laws with no penalties, and even if there are no penalties for the parents, what about the student, especially if the student is 18, as many high school seniors are?

The lawyer in me is wary. (Look, Ma, I’m using that degree!)

So, from what I can tell, the ACLU is saying that there is one rogue school district and I don’t need to worry. To their credit, Fox in Chicago reported that Chicago Public Schools has said they really aren’t interested in collecting passwords from students.

I do think this is ripe for legal challenge in that one school district collecting the passwords, and I really do hope someone brings this to the courts so that they can decide this matter that to me seems like an intrusion of privacy and evidences a lack of awareness of both how social media works and the responsibilities of parents on the part of administrators.

Should schools address bullying and cyberbullying? Absolutely. I think that well-intentioned legislators took steps to make that happen.

But do schools need access to passwords to do so? I think not.

Prior Post: In defense of letting kids get bored once in awhile

Related Content: 3 Important tech resolutions for digital parents AND Tweens and teens are sharing personal info via Instagram – lots of it

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