Social-Networking Behavior and Student Punishments

By Katie Ash — October 06, 2008 2 min read
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Here’s an interesting post over at PBS’s Learning Now blog that talks about a recent court decision that upheld a school’s decision to discipline students who made a fake MySpace profile for the school’s principal containing offensive and vulgar information. The judge ruled that even though the offense happened off school grounds, its effect directly disrupted the school, and the students could be held responsible.

Punishing kids for what happens online, especially on social networking sites like, is a murky subject that educators are still feeling out at this point. As Digital Directions reporter Michelle Davis wrote about in her story outlining the ups and downs of social networking, it’s not always clear what the school’s role is in dealing with disciplinary problems that originate on social networking sites and eventually spill over into the school arena.

Personally, I didn’t encounter too many social networking sites until I was older. Facebook launched when I was a freshman in college, and although MySpace was around earlier than that, I hadn’t had much experience with it until I was a college student. Although I’ve never been one to share too much of my private life in a public online arena, I do remember being warned by parents and teachers alike when I graduated that employers often checked MySpace and Facebook profiles, and that I should be conscious of that.

I’ve always been pretty judicious about what I put online, but I don’t know if I would have the same mind set if I encountered MySpace or Facebook at an earlier age. I think part of the reason some students feel it’s OK to put up offensive, satirical profiles of their principals or post pictures of themselves drinking underage is because they don’t realize how wide of an audience those profiles can reach, and the consequences for those actions aren’t always clearly defined beforehand. The Internet feels like a huge place, and it seems unlikely that parents or teachers will stumble upon the sometimes unsavory antics at play on social networking sites, although the reality is that a simple Web search will often reveal students’ profiles.

The students who made the fake profile of their principal must have known that what they were doing would be frowned upon by the school administration, but I don’t know if they realized how severe the consequences of their prank could be. As sometimes happens on the Internet, it’s possible for something that seems very small at first to turn into something way bigger than expected. The students might not have realized when they created the profile how much of a buzz it would create in the classroom and how strongly the administration could respond to such an issue.

As these kinds of problems arise more and more often, I imagine schools will eventually take a position on what students can be punished for. I think having policies in place to deal with these kinds of situations before they happen that both recognize the pervasive existence of social networking sites without banning the use of them outright and clearly delineate the consequences of certain disruptive behaviors (such as misrepresenting school staff or posting pictures of students engaging in illegal activities) would be beneficial for both educators and students. Knowing what they do now, I don’t know if those students still would have made that fake profile—maybe, maybe not. But at least they would know what to expect from the school in response.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.