Riley Stratton remembers all too well the day Minnewaska school officials brought her into a room, with a police officer present, and demanded she cough up access to her Facebook account.
“I was in tears,” the 15-year-old said Tuesday. “I was embarrassed when they made me give over my password.”
In this latest free-speech legal clash between schools and students over murky rules governing social media privacy, Minnewaska Area Schools agreed to pay $70,000 in damages and rewrite its policies to limit how intrusive the school can be when searching a student’s e-mails and social media accounts created off school grounds.
The federal court settlement comes just after Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn, a 17-year-old honor student and football captain, was suspended for seven weeks for a two-word Internet posting in a case that created a community uproar.
“A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” said attorney Wallace Hilke, who helped lead Riley’s case from the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Riley was 13, in sixth grade, when she posted on Facebook two years ago that she hated a school hall monitor because she was mean. After school officials called her in and leveled an in-school suspension for what she said on social media, she went back on Facebook and asked who snitched.
“I was a little mad at whoever turned me in ’cause it was outside school when it happened,” Riley said in a telephone interview from her central Minnesota home in Glenwood.
School defends action
After a parent complained about her Facebook chat with her son that was of a sexual nature, the school called her in and demanded her password as a deputy sheriff looked on. When she complied, they navigated her Facebook page in front of her.
“They punished her for doing exactly what kids have done for 100 years — complaining to her friends about teachers and administrators,” Hilke said. “She wasn’t spreading lies or inciting them to engage in bad behavior, she was just expressing her personal feelings.”
Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Schmidt, whose district admitted no liability in the settlement, says the case teeters on a fine line over when schools can play a parenting role to combat things such as cyberbullying.
“Some people think schools go too far and I get that,” Schmidt said. “But we want to make kids aware that their actions outside school can be detrimental.”
He wasn’t in charge at the time, taking over in July, but he was involved in the settlement and said: “The school’s intent wasn’t to be mean or bully this student, but to really remedy someone getting off track a little.”
Riley’s mother, Sandra Stratton, said she wasn’t informed or invited to sit in when officials “interrogated” her daughter.
She did say the school called that morning to discuss the parent’s complaint about the sex-talk message with her son.
“They never once told me they were going to bring her into the room and demand her Facebook password,” Sandra said. “I’m hoping schools kind of leave these things alone so parents can punish their own kids for things that happen off school grounds.”.
As part of the settlement, Minnewaska school policies now address electronic devices for the first time.
The new rules say electronic records and passwords created off-campus can only be searched if there’s a reasonable suspicion they will uncover violations of school rules. Enhanced teacher training was also part of the settlement.
“Kids’ use of social media is the family’s business,” Hilke said, “not the school’s business unless it’s a case of cyberbullying or poses a substantial threat to school activities.”
Riley, who now uses an alias on Facebook, has since left the Minnewaska schools for home schooling.
She said she made the switch because the dispute “was so embarrassing and I didn’t want to go to any other school anymore.”