US school to fork over $70K for hassling sixth-grader about Facebook posting

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Law & order, Privacy, Social networks

Photo of Riley Stratton, CCRiley Stratton was in sixth grade (aged 13) when school officials gave her an in-school suspension for posting on Facebook about how she hated a school hall monitor because she was mean.

Following this incident, she was again hauled in front of school officials and forced to give them access to her Facebook and email accounts.

With a police officer in the room, they ransacked Riley's Facebook page and her conversations, looking for an alleged online conversation she had with a boy about sex that had been reported to the school by his mother.

Riley was punished with detention. For what she said on social media. Not on school computers. When she wasn't even in school.

One of Riley's attorneys, Wallace Hilke, helped lead a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the school on Riley's behalf in 2012.

Hilke told the Star Tribune, a Minnesota news outlet, that considering how innocuous Riley's post was, the school's actions were way out of line:

They punished her for doing exactly what kids have done for 100 years - complaining to her friends about teachers and administrators. She wasn't spreading lies or inciting them to engage in bad behavior, she was just expressing her personal feelings.

In this, the latest clash between schools and students over free speech, social media and privacy, Minnewaska Area Schools, in the US state of Minnesota, has agreed to pay $70,000 in damages and to rewrite its policies to limit how intrusive the school can be when searching a student’s emails and social media accounts created off school grounds, the ACLU announced on Tuesday.

That sum will be divided between the Strattons, for damages, and the Minnesota branch of the ACLU, to cover case costs and support future ACLU-MN efforts to protect the civil liberties of Minnesotans, the group said.

As part of the settlement, Minnewaska school policies have been overhauled so as to address electronic devices for the first time, according to the Star Tribune.

The new rules also stipulate that electronic records and passwords created off-campus can only be searched if there's a reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover violations of school rules. Teacher training is also going to be bolstered as part of the settlement.

Riley released this statement about the settlement:

I am so happy that my case is finally over, and that my school changed its rules so what happened to me doesn't happen to other students. It was so embarrassing and hard on me to go through, but I hope that schools all over see what happened and don't punish other students the way I was punished.

On one hand, it's good to hear that this grade-school version of prosecutorial overreach has been corrected.

On the other hand, all sympathy to teachers and school administrators as they wrestle with cyber woes that stem from children and teens being online, including cyberbullying and sextortion.

One example is the case of Yik Yak, a location-based mobile app that's been banned by some schools, given that it's prone to being used not only as a toxic venue for cyberbullying but also for bomb threats that have led to multiple school lockdowns.

Schoolyard meanness has even turned fatal, leading to teen suicide.

Given these issues, it's easy to see how a school would want to jump, hard and fast, to quash students' negative online expressions.

It seems that Riley's school jumped a bit too quickly and came down too hard, stripping her of her privacy when they demanded access to her private online accounts. The school says it had her parents' permission, but her mother denies this.

Getting written permission, from a parent or legal guardian, before demanding access to a student's accounts, seems like a minimal requirement for schools to adopt.

To make sure that your own children and teens think before they post, here are Naked Security's Top 10 Tips from Safer Internet Day.

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11 Responses to US school to fork over $70K for hassling sixth-grader about Facebook posting

  1. Jan Doggen · 559 days ago

    "The new rules also stipulate that electronic records and passwords created off-campus can only be searched if there's a reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover violations of school rules" That's a bit ambiguous. If it means the school thinks they can demand passwords on the basis of 'reasonable suspicion' they better think again. The debates are still on whether *law enforcement* can demand passwords, so it's unlikely that any 'reason' a *school* comes up with will hold in court.

  2. PC Friendly · 559 days ago

    As much as I think our country has become "sue happy", I am glad an example was made of the school for stepping way out of bounds. They were out of line.

  3. Garry Jantzen · 559 days ago

    You notice it was "School officials" who made these unreasonable demands - not the teachers. Yes, some teachers do some crazy things that make the news, but next time you read about something really dumb that a school or school district has done - read carefully. 9 times out of ten it's the school administrators or school board that initiated the craziness!

  4. Concerned Observer · 559 days ago

    Giving her password to the school is a violation of the Facebook terms of service. She should simply have refused...

    4. Registration and Account Security

    8. You will not share your password (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.

    • wad11656 · 558 days ago

      Piece of cake for a 13 year-old girl with adults and a cop beside her

      • ian1775 · 558 days ago

        I remember being a 13 year old boy. There was no facebook then, but if there had been, and I had an account, I would have been totally offended and would have flat refused. Having police & parents there would have made me even more adamant. ("Try and make me.")

  5. Tony · 559 days ago

    With police in the room? Where was the crime? They shold have charged the school for falsely rorting a crime and abusing police resources.

  6. yesteach · 559 days ago

    My thinking here as to the parent of the boy, at what point do the parents become responsible for their children's actions? If I was under the impression that one of my children was involved in inappropriate social media, I'd talk to my child and then the PARENTS of the other child. The mother of the boy should have talked to the parents. The school's job is to EDUCATE not RAISE your children. Schools should not have be responsible for or have access to anything that goes on outside of school... stop taking the issues to the school and be a parent!

  7. Bill · 558 days ago

    Cyber bullying?

  8. I hope the district deducted the $70k from the salaries of the administrators, and when the amount was paid in full fired them. Far too many public employees walk away unharmed when they violate our trust!

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.