A Minnesota mother has filed suit against the Minnewaska School District on behalf of her 12-year-old daughter. The suit, which has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, is expected to have an impact that reaches far beyond the grounds of Minnewaska Area Middle School. At issue is the length schools and employers can go to in order to control private speech.
The girl at the center of the case, known only as R.S., alleges that school officials punished her multiple times for her private Facebook activity and then staged a mock police detainment in order to coerce her into revealing her Facebook and email passwords. The suit claims that school employees used the information to read the girl’s private emails and posts.
R.S. believed she was being targeted by a school monitor, so she posted a message on her Facebook wall saying that she hated the monitor for being mean to her. Facebook does not allow public viewing of the walls of minors, so there was no way for the monitor or school officials to see the message. Someone showed a screenshot of the girl’s wall to school officials, however, and R.S. was punished and forced to apologize to the monitor.
Afterwards, R.S. posted a message expressing her anger at the “friend” who had told on her. She was suspended from school for this post. Later, the guardian of another student complained to school officials that R.S. had discussed sex in a private Facebook conversation with another child. Neither the posts nor the conversation was conducted on school grounds or using school equipment.
After the last incident, R.S. claims she was detained in a small room in the presence of a police officer and two school employees and told she had to reveal her Facebook login information and her email password. The suit alleges that R.S. sobbed with fear and humiliation as the officer and school employees read her private conversations and emails and berated her for their contents.
The suit alleges that the district violated the student’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. According to court papers, the girl’s mother was not informed of the interrogation and never gave anyone permission to look at her daughter’s private communications.
The school district contends that its actions were reasonable and legal. According to a district spokesperson, “The district is confident that once all facts come to light, the district’s conduct will be found to be reasonable and appropriate.”
If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.