Schools Should Not be Responsible for Regulating Offsite Online Behavior

Schools are not responsible for monitoring what students watch on TV, what video games they play or what music they listen to. Why should they be held responsible for what students do on the Internet?

"New technologies such as text messaging, "twittering," social networking site profiles, and instant messaging enable kids to bully one another long after the school day ends. Parents, educators, and legislators are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with this new kind of bullying where the cyber-savvy schoolyard bully uses social networks rather than fists to pick a fight." (Hanley)

The question then becomes are schools responsible for the actions of its students after the end of the school day? Although, one can and reasonibly should argue that online behavior that cross into the school yard should be taken seriously by school officials; schools should not be responsible for the actions of students' offsite online behavior.

Legal Implications

School districts are encumbered by law as to regulating offsite online behavior. Students are protected by the First Amendment right of free speech and can post comments, photographs and videos so long as the material does not “cause a substantial disruption to the school’s learning environment.” (Shvartsman). Bruce Watson, Superintendent of Fair Lawn School in Bergen Country, New Jersey, said "Generally, the schools consider Facebook and other social-networking sites students' personal domain. Because it is unaffiliated with schools, he said, school staff members have to be very careful if they want to discuss an Internet posting with a student." (Akin 2009) Instead of monitoring Facebook, they leave it up to the police to patrol it.

As an example of the ambiguousness of this law, in early 2010 on the same day, two separate panels of judges in a Pennsylvania court heard arguments on First Amendment cases involving a student and a school district. Although both cases appeared to have the same points of law, the panels ruled differently – one for the student and the other for the school district. Because these two rulings appeared contradictory and further muddied the law on this matter, an en banc hearing was scheduled wherein the US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit listened to arguments by all the attorneys in both cases in an attempt to reconcile the two cases and clarify case law. As of this date, the court has not yet issued a written decision. (Shvartsman). These cases raise legal issues and demonstrate how difficult and costly it could be for a school district to attempt to regulate offsite online behavior by its students.

The following slideshow contains a quick overview of lawsuits that have come about due to schools regulating and punishing students for posts on the Internet. In the cases that are presented, the schools won only one case due to the teacher having to take medical leave for fear based off of what the student posted.

"Can Schools Regulate Cyberbullying, Harassment, and Social Networking?" Slideshow by Scott McLead

Can Schools Pick and Choose What They Punish for?

Why do schools get to decide what they can and cannot punish students for? If a student commits a crime off campus, for instance, steals from a store, the school does not give a consequence to the student. Instead, they allow the police or parents to handle that situation. "When a student commits a crime, schools are usually the first to distance themselves and say they had no idea the student was in trouble with the law. Students' social behavior or their sexual behavior, all of that we accept is the province of the parents and the families to figure out. There shouldn't be a rule that speech is an uniquely unprotected activity because it's the only one that is specifically mentioned in the constitution." (Thomas, 2010)

So if Schools Shouldn't Regulate, What Can Be Done?

Image by Maude Glendon-Ross
Image by Maude Glendon-Ross

While cyberbullying should be taken seriously as severe consequences can occur because of such attacks, schools should not regulate offsite online behavior. Cyberbullying is bullying and when we think about it schools are responsible for disciplinary actions when it happens during school but what about outside of school. Schools are not aware of every instance of neighborhood bullying that occurs with students and therefore would not be aware of every circumstance of cyberbullying. That’s not to say that schools have no role in helping to educate against bullying and cyberbullying. In order to thwart this type of negative behavior, it’s important to teach parents about online safety and giving them the tools to monitor their student’s online conduct. (Adams)

Often when a student is bullied in school, they are also bullied online. Other times it is the victim who will retaliate online, where the student feels it safe to defend themself. School officials that investigate the claims are often walking on a thin line legally. (Willard 2007) If the bullying is on campus using school internet resources or personal digital devices while on campus it should be regulated. There should be very specific policies to cover this issue. (Willard 2007)

In addition, schools play a role in informing parents about what to do when their child is the victim of cyberbullying. Ensuring that their child is not responding to the bully, keeping evidence of abusive texts, e-mails or chat room discussions and contacting the police in cases of extreme or excessive harassment are a few steps to put an end to the assault. In addition, there is no problem keeping the school informed of a problem as administrators and teachers can keep an eye on any incidents that could (or already do) occur at school. (Hardcastle) Along with informing parents, schools also play a role in teaching children strategies of how to react and deal with cyber bullies. By teaching children appropriate responses will hopefully keep them from engaging in furthering the bullying.

Schools do have a role in educating our children about safe Internet practices, but so do the parents of our children. Is there really any better tool for combating concerning Internet behavior than involved parents? Parents need to stop assuming that all education and guidance should be delivered by teachers and administrator; parents must own up to their roles and responsibilities in regulating their child's behavior. For parents, there are several mechanisms which can be utilized. First, try having discussions with children about Internet safety—make them aware of the dangers and some of the necessary precautions. For example, not so long ago, a local police officer created an online identity of a 13-year-old girl. While online, the officer was able to meet and stop a 33-year-old man from taking another young female victim. This was used as a teaching moment for my own 13-year-old daughter. Use the discussions as a springboard for setting some ground rules for online activity. Then next, follow up on those rules by being aware of what your child is doing on line: Which pages do they access? Who are their friends? What are they posting? Never assume “my child would never do anything like that.” Finally, if all else fails, there are subscription services (SafetyWeb, SocialShield, MyChild) available for a fee to monitor online activity. (Now Parents Can Hire a Hall Monitor for the Web”) These services are not perfect, but for an overwhelmed parent or for the not-so-tech-savvy parent, it is a good starting point, but in the end, nothing can surpass the benefits of an aware parent and children who know their parents are paying attention.

The National PTA also voices the opinion that parental involvement and education are vital to keeping students safe online and also teaching internet etiquette. They mention using filters which parents can use to monitor their child’s internet activities. (PTA). Such software not only keeps children safe from predators, but also from other risky activity such as cyber bullying. Critics claim that using the software implies to the child that the parent does not trust them and is “spying” on them; however, proponents assert that the parent should explain when the child is of age to use the internet that the software is being used as a safety measure and is a non-negotiable aspect of the child’s internet usage. After all “it is not spying if you tell them you are doing it. Parents who deal openly and honestly about their intentions to monitor their kid's computers can offset some of the potential dangers lurking online.” (Montaldo).

One international school in Bangkok wrote out this letter to parents about Facebook and how important it is to teach the children about safe and how to use these social networking sites appropriately. The students will use them anyway, why not use these sites as a teaching moment? Here is the letter:

Dear Parent,
Thanks for your email, you raise an issue that schools, teachers, parents and workplaces are currently grappling with i.e. weighing the benefits of social networks against the concerns. When considering the relative merits of Facebook, there are some very obvious negative uses as well as positive uses, and a whole lot of grey area:

  • Facebook is a 21st Century Communication tool that students use much like we use email
  • Acknowledgment of this very real social interaction and providing students with opportunities to learn with technology the way they live with technology rather than further distance school from the reality of the outside world
  • Giving students opportunity to develop their own time management skills and choices
  • Developing digital citizenship and opportunity to practice safe and responsible use of information and technology

  • Cyber-bullying issues
  • Invasions of privacy
  • Reduction in productivity

Within ISB’s Technology Department, we walk a fine line with censoring Internet content, one we don’t take lightly. When attempting to strike a balance between student safety, productivity and educational benefit; we’ve found blocking pornographic sites, gambling sites and gaming sites are no brainers. However when considering social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (not to mention the many social non-English social networking sites) it is not so cut and dried.

These sites have emerged as social areas that form a major significant part of many of our student’s lives. This socialization is near as important to this generation as face to face time with their friends and they maintain friendships beyond ISB to include international students from schools around the world. At this point we feel that by simply blocking these sites, we as a school would be missing an opportunity to educate students about how to use them appropriately. That being said, we continue to monitor the use of these sites (and others) within the school and evaluate their value and the learning opportunity for students (as opposed to denial) versus the potential for distraction. If students cannot manage their time on computers productively at school, then they would certainly not be able to at home. Blocking access has not proven to be effective in teaching students to use a tool effectively and wisely. If you’d like to further discuss Facebook, I’d be happy for you to come by the EdTech Office (above the library).

ISB Ed Tech Team
(Utect 2009)

The quote below sums up this issue quite nicely: “As I have noted previously, articles about MySpace and teens making poor choices really serve more as a window into problems we have and should face up to together as communities, rather than revealing many "new" issues. It takes a village to raise children, and we need more parent/guardian awareness and participation in the lives of our young people to deal not only with issues of Internet safety, but also more basic issues of safety and good decisionmaking.” (Fryer).

Keeping children safe online? Advice for Parents on Child Protection by Patrick Dixon


  1. Off-Campus Student Speech: Be Careful What You Post. Shulamit Shvartsman, Retrieved 11/8/10.
  2. Cyberbullying - A Global Concern. Jennifer Hanley, Retrieved 11/9/10.
  3. What is Cyberbullying?. Mike Hardcastle, Retrieved 11/9/10.
  4. Cyberbullying - What Teachers and Schools Can Do. Caralee Adams, Retrieved 11/9/10.
  5. Monitoring Facebook Raises Privacy ConcernsStephanie Akin, Retrieved 11/9/10.
  6. Monitoring Students off Campus- is it Legal. Linda Thomas, Retrieved 11/9/10
  7. Educator’s Guide to Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats. Nancy Willard, Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet. Retrieved 11/11/10
  8. Now Parents Can Hire a Hall Monitor for the Web. Brad Stone. New York Times. Revieved on 11/11/10.
  9. Moving at the Speed of Creativity. By Wesley Fryer, - Retrieved 11/9/2010.
  10. Software That Allows Parents to Monitor Online Activity Gains in Popularity Spying On Your Children?. Charles Montaldo, - Retrieved11/9/2010.
  11. Parent Strategy for Internet Safety,tp:// - Retrieved 11/9/2010.
  12. Why Facebook is Unblocked at ISB Jeff Utect. 11/13/2009. Retrieved 11/11/10