42 students questioned, 13 disciplined

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD, CHAO XIONG, MICHAEL RAND and CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2008 - 10:56 AM

Thirteen Eden Prairie High students who were pictured drinking online face penalties. Some students are planning a walkout after first period this morning, and they're promoting the protest where the controversy began: on Facebook.com.

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Eden Prairie High School student journalists (from left) Joe Zara, 18; Victoria Obrant, 17; Charlie Crocker, 15; and Nathan Kraines, 17, are working on a story about some of their classmates who are being disciplined after school administrators saw pictures of them with alcohol on Facebook.com.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

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One by one, classroom phones were ringing at Eden Prairie High School, as administrators requested that teachers send certain students to their deans' offices.

When the school's investigation concluded Wednesday, 42 students had been questioned and 13 disciplined after Internet photos revealed the students partying with alcohol in violation of school rules, administrators said.

Punishments include suspensions from sports and other activities, angering students who think administrators went too far. Some students are planning a walkout after first period this morning, and they're promoting the protest where the controversy began: on Facebook.com.

Some parents are reportedly considering legal action because they view the school's action as too harsh. But legal experts say the area is muddy, because the mushrooming popularity of social networking sites is so new, challenges have yet to work their way up through the courts.

Similar cases of schools using such images to discipline students have cropped up elsewhere.

Students' Facebook and Myspace.com photos in Missouri, Illinois and Michigan have prompted debates about whether administrators are overreaching or students are simply being foolish by publicizing their antics on the Internet.

"We are in a time when there is so much widespread anxiety and fear about these new modes of expression for youth that adults don't really understand," said Prof. Montana Miller, a Facebook expert who talks to parent groups and teaches Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Miller said both adults and students need to "wake up," because drinking has been going on for decades "and all of a sudden adults are freaking out because they're seeing evidence of it on Facebook."

Kids, too, need to realize "you can't just be advertising this stuff all over the place," she said. "I'm not condoning it, but it's a good lesson that if you publicize your private behavior there will be consequences."

Students, parents weigh in

Some students said the school's actions won't stop students from drinking -- they'll only make them smarter about what they post. "It's kind of like trying to stop speeding," said senior Joe Zara, 18.

He said some students deleted their Facebook page or photos from their profile because of the suspensions. But that doesn't mean they're immune. Zara knows two students who don't have Facebook pages but were called into their dean's office because someone else had posted compromising pictures of them on the website.

Zara and classmates Charlie Crocker, Victoria Obrant and Nathan Kraines agreed that underage drinking is wrong, but said the school's sanctions were too strong. Warnings would have sufficed, Crocker said.

The foursome, who are not involved in the controversy, said students are getting longer suspensions from activities -- up to five weeks -- if they appeared in multiple photos. The evidence in some cases was also dubious, they said, noting that pictures of students holding a red cup were enough to merit a call to the dean's office.

While Facebook users can limit who views their pages, allowing access only to friends in their "network," the students acknowledged that Facebook can be highly public.

"You don't think some parent or student is going to find them and give them to the school," Crocker said. "I don't think it's an invasion of privacy, but is it creepy? Yes."

Obrant said her social studies class spent its entire period Wednesday discussing the controversy.

"A lot of people are really mad," Zara said. "It's all people talk about."

Larry Burke, an Eden Prairie father of a senior goaltender on the girls' hockey team who was not involved in the controversy, said the brouhaha will spark some positive talks.

"The drinking is something kids have done since alcohol was invented," he said. "The posting is very foolish. But from a perspective of a parent, I'm glad it happened. There are a lot of discussions going on in a lot of households about alcohol and consequences."

School wasn't fishing

Eden Prairie Principal Conn McCartan said the school wasn't trolling around students' Facebook pages. He said administrators were "presented" with the photos, but wouldn't say who provided them.

After receiving the images, the school of 3,300 had no choice but to investigate, he said.

"We do not go out looking at student social networking sites," McCartan said. In a statement, he said the school contacted the Minnesota State High School League and district lawyers for advice on how to proceed.

High School League spokesman Howard Voigt said the league requires students and their parents to sign a form agreeing to abstain from alcohol and other drugs while participating in a league-sanctioned activity. He said member schools such as Eden Prairie develop their own policies about the evidence they use to document suspected violations.

"The proof could come from virtually any source," Voigt said. "The fact that these social networking websites have popped up in recent years gives schools another source of information."

Other schools react

Bob Tift, president of Benilde-St. Margaret's School, acknowledged that the information school officials receive in such a case could be sent by someone seeking revenge, but he said the source's motives aren't what matters.

"We know that it might be a retaliation thing, but we feel obligated to follow up on it," Tift said.

Minnetonka High School Principal Dave Adney and Burnsville High School Principal Kay Joyce approved of Eden Prairie's actions. "I applaud the administration," Adney said.

In an e-mail, Joyce said: "The electronic world we now live in necessitates people making more responsible choices or running the risk of their behaviors becoming very public."

Adney said teachers and coaches at Minnetonka High School are frank with parents and students about the potential consequences if photos of them drinking show up on social networking sites. He said school officials don't have time "to troll the Internet" looking for conduct violations, but have received calls about photos on students' personal websites that prompted further investigation.

Courts have found it permissible to suspend students from extracurricular activities. A 2002 case deemed those activities privileges, not rights, said Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

"The question is whether this is a good use of school resources," he said. "There are no simple answers to whether this is the proper function for the schools or should this be in the hands of parents and police."

Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center in Virginia, said social networking cases are so new that there's little legal precedent.

"But some would argue schools have no business punishing students doing that which doesn't disrupt school affairs,'' LoMonte said.

prelerford@startribune.com 612-673-4395 cxiong@startribune.com 612-673-4391 curt.brown@startribune.com 612-673-4767 mrand@startribune.com • 612-673-7564

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