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Enumclaw School District and community wrestle with students' Twitter talk

Trouble with Twitter talk at Enumclaw High School - Graphic by Kathy McCauley
Trouble with Twitter talk at Enumclaw High School
— image credit: Graphic by Kathy McCauley

Social media became the talk of the town during the Dec. 16 meeting of the Enumclaw School Board.

A group of eight parents and students spoke to board members concerning a complaint filed by the Farr Law Group involving some students’ Twitter accounts and the school district’s reaction to the complaint. Most of the students were high-school athletes. The Courier-Herald was able to confirm that at least one was not.

Students and parents asked pointed questions about the right and responsibility of the school district to get involved in student’s speech outside of school hours and off school property. Students and parents also expressed concerns that someone was following the students on social media and questioned the motivation behind such action.

The complaint and the school district’s response brought to light a myriad of issues involving social media that school administrators and parents are struggling with across the state and nation.

The Beginning

The story began when the Enumclaw-based Farr Law Group filed a complaint June 26 concerning language used by about seven Enumclaw High School students on their Twitter accounts.

The Courier-Herald received the documents in question following a public records request.

The letter filed by the firm, signed by Megan Farr, was accompanied by a “Discrimination, Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying” form. Also included where screen shots of the students’ personal Twitter accounts from February through June 2013.

The letter stated a client brought the issue to the firm and the individual wished to remain anonymous “for fear of retribution. The complaint is sent through our office to (hopefully) communicate its seriousness, with the hope that the district will treat this appropriately.

“The complaint regards what appears to us a pattern amongst students in your district to use the words ‘faggot’ (or a variation thereof) – along with other offensive remarks, and general profanity.

“Given past district initiatives to counter bullying and encourage kindness – we trust the school district will handle this appropriately.”

School District Action

The school district sent a letter to the law firm stating, “As you likely know, the District has limited authority to impose student discipline for student behavior that occurs off campus. Nevertheless, our high school administrative team will conduct an investigation the week of July 8-12. Appropriate action will be taken with each individual student based on the evidence gathered during the course of the investigation.”

According to the district, about seven students were called in with their parents for an investigation interview.

Superintendent Mike Nelson said a protocol was followed with each interview because a formal complaint had been filed by the law firm.

“We wanted to know what was behind these tweets,” Nelson said. “Our (high school) staff knows these kids and (the staff) felt there was not an aggressor nor a victim. There was not a victim.”

Nelson said he believes the district and schools work hard to prohibit bullying and harassment of students.

“That is why we launched Rachel’s Challenge,” Nelson said. Rachel Scott was the first student killed in 1999 during the Columbine High School massacre.

Nelson said he began the Rachel’s Challenge program at the school district to help deal with, “harassment and bullying in a proactive manner.”

November Complaint

The Farr law firm sent a second letter to the district Nov. 18 stating another complaint was being filed. The firm attached screen shots of about seven more students’ Twitter accounts from July through November 2013.

The letter stated the attorneys wished the complaint to remain anonymous and added the issue was, “more than a disciplinary problem; it is a cultural problem….”

The letter noted the school district’s response in June stated it has, “limited authority to handle ‘off grounds’ behavior, and there would be training for high school students and teachers on social media. Nothing more was said. We now question the effectiveness of these efforts (and submit to you there is legal precedent to discipline off-grounds speech so long as it is not ‘protected’ speech), but aside from that, we believe these incidents indicate a cultural problem in Enumclaw. It must be changed.”

No case citation was provided concerning the legal precedent.

The letter continued, “As members of this community and parents we are appalled. These kids are not only creating a hostile learning environment, they are harming themselves. These ‘tweets’ will follow them and cut off academic and career opportunities.”

The letter was addressed to Nelson and signed by both Farr and M. Owen Gabrielson, who are married and have a preschool-age child.

November School Action

Following this letter, the school brought in seven more students to interview. The difference was, this time the students were taken from class and parents were notified later.

Nelson wrote a letter back to the firm stating the students had all been met with and parents contacted.

“I noted in reviewing the student posts that all but one occurred outside the school day. The Enumclaw School District does not have the authority to regulate students’ off campus conduct or to discipline them for such conduct unless the conduct causes a disruption on campus. EHS administrators did not note any disruption of the educational program as a result of these posts. In fact, while plainly inappropriate, the tweets were among friends, and not attempts to harass another student.”

Nelson wrote in the letter, “We do not believe that there is a culture at EHS that fosters inappropriate posts. To the contrary, EHS has worked very hard to create a culture of kindness and acceptance.”

Twitter

The Twitter screen shots that span February to November include swearing, language like “gay,” “faggot” and the “F word,” and the word “retard.” There is also a screen shot of a two boys, one wearing a yarmulke or skull cap worn by Jewish men, and the other boy was standing with his fingers pointed at his forehead. A tag on the post is “Germany vs Jews.”

Farr and Gabrielson pointed to this as anti-Semitic. A parent of a student involved in the post said the attorneys misunderstood the intent of that post and many of the other students’ posts.

All the posts appear to be between friends and there was no indication anyone was being singled out to be harassed or bullied.

Board Meeting

Parents and students who spoke at the December meeting questioned the law firm’s and their client’s motivation and the school’s actions. The Courier-Herald will not be using the students’ names who spoke at the meeting and in phone interviews since all are minors.

State Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, a former Enumclaw School Board member, spoke at the meeting, asking the board to reconsider the district’s harassment and bullying policy.

“…in the state legislature when we pushed this antibullying and harassment through, the intent was for it to protect students,” Dahlquist said. “And what we found is there are people in this community, right now who are using it to their benefit to bully and stalk and harass children, as we speak.”

Dahlquist added, “We are all born in the United States of America; we have the First Amendment to free speech. Kids might say things, adults might say things we don’t like. They may call each other names we don’t like. Unless there is a victim, there is no bullying or harassment.”

Dahlquist does not believe the district should have called students out of class without contacting parents first and added, “I do not believe it is the right of the school district to monitor social media accounts, personal social media accounts, that has nothing to do with school related issues.”

Kari Christensen asked board members, “(What) are you going to do to protect my family from this person that for some reason finds it cool to look at a 17-year-old girl’s Twitter account?”

A female student said, “I understand that I may have said some offensive things I should not have been saying on the Internet. I didn’t think the school should get involved. Especially when I was out of school…. I felt like I was really targeted by this as well as other kids.”

Mauricio Portillo Sr. said, “Someone told me this is the land of free and home of the brave. And I don’t think this person (who followed the Twitter accounts) is brave.”

Another female student said, “I’m very responsible… taking care of my own business. I think it is really inappropriate for someone to be going through all my stuff.”

Students

A female student who was interviewed by phone said she did not believe the school should have been involved.

She said all the kids are “great kids” and the person accessing the accounts was “targeting certain groups of kids.”

The student said the females felt they were being cyberstalked.

“Going out and finding us on our Twitter accounts, looking over our feeds. It was creepy,” she said.

She said she understood adults would consider the posts inappropriate and, “not what adults want to see … don’t go out and search for it.”

The student said the group of students determined which Twitter account was following them. The account did not use an individual’s name. She said the person communicated with them. There was no evidence that inappropriate language was used by the person following the students.

The Twitter account and the communication was confirmed by parents and students.

Nelson and school administrators said they were not aware the person following the students was also communicating with them.

Farr said she could not state who followed the students because of attorney-client privilege.

Disciplinary or Education

The female student said she felt the interviews by the administration were disciplinary. Parents contacted by The Courier-Herald said they thought the interviews were disciplinary, despite what the school district said.

Nelson noted that no formal disciplinary forms were added to the students’ record, which would be accessible by parents online through the district website.

The school administration described the interviews as an investigation that was more formal, with notes of the interviews kept.

One parent said the student and parents were told to sign a form stating they were interviewed.

The parents of the student following the interview insisted the school administration remove the notes from the student’s file, which they were told was done.

According to Nelson, the second set of interviews in November were less formal, which is why the students were called from class and parents were contacted later. The school administration said no notes were kept of the second set of interviews.

Nelson said when the school district received the complaints the students and parents needed to be contacted.

“I don’t think it should have been put in a drawer or file and not have parents know we have information about their child,” Nelson said.

Nelson also said the board was informed as soon as the complaints were made.

Farr Law Group

Farr said during an interview at her office that she and Gabrielson were trying to point out a “cultural problem” in Enumclaw and their intent was not to get “anyone in trouble or target any child.”

Farr said they were representing a client who brought the issue to them.

“We looked into this and we were horrified by what we saw. We know Enumclaw is better than this. We hope the result of this will be a candid community discussion.”

Farr also said she wanted the students to understand what they are doing on social media, which is public, and the consequences of the posts. She said the firm’s intent was for the school, parents and students to take the issue seriously.

Farr said inappropriate social media posts can cause problems for students trying to get jobs, scholarships and accepted to colleges.

She said it is not a personal issue for the firm but the motivation is to begin a conversation.

“Students publishing anti-Semitic sentiments, racist and anti-gay slurs to other students in the public forum of Twitter creates a hostile environment in our schools,” Farr wrote in an email. “In this matter, as an advocate, my job is to speak for those individuals fearful to speak alone. I think we can all agree that an educational environment where everyone – students, teachers and staff – feels safe in the halls and classrooms is worth advocating for.”

ACLU

Attorney Linda Mangel, education equity expert with the American Civil Liberty Union, said during a phone interview, “schools cannot discipline students for speech and other activities that takes place outside of school on outside computers unless it disrupts schools.”

Mangel said the schools do have a “wide berth to call kids down (out of class) and discuss behavior.”

She said schools should be cautious about “meddling in students’ off-campus activities unless they call them down to express concern.”

Mangel said the students need to be aware that social media is public and to be cautious and careful.

“There is no such thing as a private conversation online,” Mangel said.

The ACLU has a guide on its website titled, “Student Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age.”

The guide details how the state and U.S. Constitution “guarantee freedom of expression for everyone, including students. Students do not give up their constitutional rights when they walk onto school grounds.”

A PDF file of the guide will be posted to The Courier-Herald website linked to this story.

Conclusion

The school board will be considering changes to the district bullying policy.

Nelson said the district wants to be certain students are safe and, “We don’t want kids bullied.”

The question for the board is whether to allow adults in the community to anonymously file a bullying report, as was done in this case. The district would continue to allow students to report anonymously concerning harassment and bullying.

“We are all trying to get our arms around social media,” Nelson said.

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