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Chicago schools plan social media policy for students

by Leor Galil
March 10, 2010

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Oak Forest High School issues with Facebook

Oak Forest High School sophomore Justin Bird was suspended on Feb. 15 for a Facebook page he created that was critical of one of his teachers. Bird received a five-day suspension for the page, which he took down a day before administrators approached him.

Bird’s parents met with administrators to discuss their son’s permanent record. Bird’s mother, Donna, told The Southtown Star that they reached an agreement on clearing her son’s record, though administrators told the Star that nothing is official.

Oak Forest High School dean of students Lillie Holman declined to discuss the issue when contacted.

Riverside-Brookfield High School issues with Facebook

On Feb. 1, two Riverside-Brookfield High School students received 10-day suspensions for a video they posted on Facebook. The video was filmed off school grounds and depicted the teens holding handguns and showing gang signs. A Riverside-Brookfield administrator said the school is looking into new ways to address technology use in the school’s policy.

As unprecedented numbers of teenagers use social networking sites, the Chicago Public Schools’ administration is devising a plan to address potential disciplinary issues dealing with students’ Internet activity.  

“We are in the process of coming up with a social media policy,” said schools’ spokesman Malon Edwards.

Edwards said Chicago schools decided to create an official guide of students’ online rights in response to the number of youth that use social media and technology. There is no timetable for completing the policy. 

Nearly three out of four teens that regularly go online use social networking sites, according to a Pew Research study released last month. The overall percentage of online youth using social networking sites jumped eight percentage points from the previous report.  

With a majority of Internet-savvy teens using Web sites like Facebook and MySpace regularly, it provides a new space for in-school issues to spill into, which can create more problems in class.  

Last month, two schools in the Chicago suburbs suspended students for material they posted on Facebook. Two Riverside-Brookfield High School students were suspended for a video they filmed off school grounds that showed them brandishing handguns and showing gang signs. At Oak Forest High School, administrators suspended sophomore Justin Bird for creating a Facebook page that demeaned one of his teachers.   

The two cases present a small sample of online issues that schools are just beginning to confront.  

“It’s a very complicated issue,” said Justin W. Patchin, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.   

Patchin’s work at the center focuses on identifying the causes and results of online harassment among youth, and providing parents and teachers with resources for responding to cyberbullying. With something as complex as students using technology to express themselves off school grounds, Patchin said Chicago must clearly define what online actions can create problems for students in school.  

“They have to be able to articulate that the behavior or speech resulted in, or has the great likelihood of, disrupting things in school,” Patchin said.   

It’s also important for schools to define what kinds of online activities are punishable so they don’t abuse students’ rights.  

“Just because a school disagrees with what a student posts online, it doesn’t mean they can punish it,” Patchin said. For Patchin, a social media policy is just one of many ways that schools need to address new problems that arise from students’ increasing use of technology.  

“It’s important to recognize that technology is here to stay, and it’s here to stay when it comes to teenagers,” Patchin said. “When schools require students to use technology for their work, they have a responsibility to teach students how to use the technology appropriately.”  

As a teacher at King College Prep High School, Karen Lewis noticed the negative affects Facebook can have on students’ learning and experience at school. However, Lewis is far more concerned with how CPS will devise the new plan.  

“I don’t care what the CPS policy is,” Lewis said. “If they don’t have students on the panel crafting the policy, it’s irrelevant.”