Teenagers love social media. Seven in 10 teens use Facebook, and more than half use Instagram, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center. Snapchat and Twitter are popular, too.
For many teens, such platforms are the best way to connect with friends and participate in public life. The benefits can be significant.
But young people have also found themselves in hot water for their use of social media, especially in school. The most prominent recent example: 10 students who had their admissions offers to Harvard University rescinded after they posted offensive memes to an online chat group. That’s just the beginning, though. From references to school shootings to racist rants to complaints about water quality, students’ social-media posts have resulted in suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and lawsuits.
Education Week rounded up 10 such incidents that made headlines this school year.
For parents and the public, the list shows how big a problem social media can be. For teachers and school administrators, these incidents put a face on tough policy questions about monitoring students’ social-media activity, demanding passwords to access students’ social media accounts, and teaching digital citizenship.
In preparing this list, Education Week sought accounts from established news organizations, as well as relevant public records.
1. An Unauthorized Rap Video (YouTube)
In real life, Anthony Talvacchio is a student at New Jersey’s Egg Harbor Township High. On social media, he’s aspiring musician @TonyBeatz. Last fall, those two identities collided when Talvacchio posted to social media a music video that was apparently filmed inside his school, without permission, according to CBS Philly. The video features profane language, teens playing dice in the bathroom, and gestures that look like shooting guns. (You can watch the video here. Warning: explicit language.)
CBS Philly reported that Talvacchio was suspended for 10 days. Other students were suspended as well, according to a tweet from Talvacchio. The incident prompted student walkouts and an online petition, according to The Current of Egg Harbor Township.
2. Exposing Her School’s Dirty Water (Facebook, Twitter)
The water coming out of the restroom faucets at John Glenn High School in Westland, Mich., was so yellow it looked like urine. So senior Hazel Juco used her phone to post a photo to social media.
Above: This tweet of a photo of dirty bathroom water led to a controversy at John Glenn High in Westland, Mich.
Juco was suspended for three days, CNN reported, for using a phone inside the bathroom, which her school considered an “inappropriate use of electronics.” After dozens of other students posted similar photos in a show of solidarity, Juco’s suspension was expunged, and the Wayne-Westland school district moved to fix the broken pipe that was causing the problem, according to CNN.
3. Posting to a Nazi Chat Group (Facebook)
More than a dozen students from multiple schools in the Boulder, Colo., area were involved in posting rape memes, messages championing “white power,” and comments about wanting to kill black and Jewish people, KUSA and The Guardian reported. The posts resulted in the expulsion of at least five students from Boulder Preparatory High, an alternative charter school, according to the news outlets.
The group chat was called the “4th Reich’s Official Group Chat.” Members were asked to “recruit new members to our cause” so they can “complete their mission,” according to KUSA. None of the students was charged with a crime, because there was no evidence of a credible threat, the Daily Camera reported. A restraining order prevented at least one student from returning to Boulder Preparatory High, an alternative charter school, the school’s headmaster told the Daily Camera. Another student was allowed to return to the school after participating in a restorative-justice process, according to the paper.
One of the students involved committed suicide after the chat group was created, the Daily Camera reported. A police report initially attributed the student’s death to a desire to show allegiance to the Nazi party. The Boulder County Coroner’s office did not appear to endorse that conclusion, referring instead to the teen’s depression and recent “life stressors,” according to the Daily Beast.
4. ‘Let’s Shoot Up the School at Homecoming’ (Instagram)
Two 14-year-old students at Ohio’s Findlay High School faced potential criminal charges of disorderly conduct after posting to social media a photo of themselves holding fake guns and a sign saying “I hate everyone, you hate everyone. Let’s shoot up the school at homecoming,” The Courier reported.
School officials determined that the post was a prank, not an actual threat. The girls were still suspended and faced possible expulsion from the school, as well as disorderly conduct charges, according to the paper. School officials declined to specify for Education Week what disciplinary action was ultimately taken against the students. A juvenile court directed both girls into a diversion program, according to the Findlay police department.
5. ‘Liking’ a Post Referencing a School Shooting (Instagram)
About 20 students at Bradford Preparatory in Charlotte, N.C., were reportedly suspended after “liking” an Instagram post that said “Bradford gon have a school shooter one day [emojis],” WCNC.com reported.
Above: The news report from WCNC-Charlotte on a controversy involving students at Bradford Preparatory who ‘liked’ an Instagram post.
A statement from the school said officials had “immediately engaged law enforcement” and “the students involved [in the original post] have been detained.”
6. Sharing an Image of a Teacher Photoshopped to Look Like Porn (Snapchat)
Five students at Mississippi’s Northeast Lauderdale High were suspended and faced felony charges after being accused of sharing via social media a photograph of a teacher that one of the students had digitally altered to look like pornography, reported the Meridian Star.
The teacher involved pressed charges against the students for “posting an injurious message on the internet,” according to the Meridian Star. In Mississippi, that crime is punishable by up to five years of prison and a $10,000 fine, according to the paper. The Lauderdale County deputy sheriff told Education Week the case was ultimately directed to a juvenile court, but he could provide no further updates.
7. A Nude Recording of a School Administrator (Snapchat)
The executive director of California’s Clayton Valley Charter High was changing in the locker room of a local fitness center when he was secretly recorded by a 17-year-old student at the school, reported Claycord.com. The student posted a photo to social media and was arrested and cited on suspicion of invasion of privacy, according to the news site. That student was expelled, and other students who shared the photo were suspended, according to The Mercury News.
Above: The news report from KBCW-San Francisco about a controversy involving a nude recording of a school administrator.
8. The Million-Dollar Lawsuit (Facebook and Twitter)
Two students at a Chicago Catholic high school were expelled for their roles in a racist group text-message exchange that other students posted to Twitter and Facebook, reported the Chicago Tribune. The families of the teens sued Marist High School for $1 million, saying the messages, which “others believed to be racially insensitive,” were meant to be private and that another student altered the texts, according to the paper.
Among the text messages described by the Sun-Times: “I F—— HATE N——.”
Some of the students involved in the text-message chain were allowed to return to the school, and a “reconciliation prayer service” was held at the school, according to the Chicago Tribune. The lawsuit is still working its way through the court system.
9. When the ACLU Steps In (Snapchat)
This situation at Ohio’s Shaker Heights High also involved racist text messages shared on social media. But this time, the two students who landed in trouble weren’t the source of the derogatory messages about African-Americans. Instead, junior Elena Weingard and sophomore Myahh Husamadeen were suspended for posting images of the texts to Snapchat and Twitter in an effort to expose racism, according to Fox 8 Cleveland and Cleveland.com.
The American Civil Liberties Union got involved, arguing that suspensions were unfair because the students did not include threats or personal attacks, made the post off campus and after school hours, and did not violate the privacy of the student who had originally written the problematic text messages, Cleveland.com reported.
Shaker Heights later reversed its disciplinary action for the students, according to the ACLU. The district superintendent issued a statement.
10. Students Push Back Against Offensive Posts (Instagram)
Eric Naposki-Abdalah was troubled by one of his classmate’s social-media posts, which included photos and memes mocking African-Americans, children with disabilities, and the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So the senior at Connecticut’s Masuk High approached administrators at the school. When that didn’t get results, Fox 61 reported, Naposki-Abdalah and others approached the student behind the offensive posts, prompting a fight. Then they organized an online petition asking district administrators to remove the student.
“Having a sister with Down syndrome, this kind of stuff hits me on a personal level and I don’t stand by it in any way,” Naposki-Abdalah told the TV station.
The student behind the offensive posts was suspended, according to Fox 61.
Research assistance provided by Education Week Research Librarian Holly Peele.
A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week