In some ways, what is happening with blogging is classic kid stuff. Who hasn't grown up hearing bragging in school hallways about killer parties, flirting with older guys, or getting cigarettes and liquor with ease? The difference today is that it isn't just a small group of friends that hear these boasts-it's the world wide Web.
The increasing tendency of children and adolescents to put their deepest thoughts, and seeming misdeeds, into online forums is raising a serious issue for schools. Many districts that aren't yet struggling with policy implementation to protect students and districts soon will be, and pending legislation could make the issue even more complex.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) proposed the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would block social networking sites at school and library computers. Some districts aren't waiting to see if the bill goes through-instead, they're taking their own steps. At District 128, in Lake County north of Chicago, a board comprised of teachers, students and coaches created a policy about technology content that is now part of the student code of conduct, stating: "Maintaining or being identified on a blog site which depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior will be considered a violation of this code."
"It wasn't something we were necessarily having problems with, but it's become an issue among high schools, and we wanted to be more protective than reactive," says Mary Todoric, spokeswoman for District 128. "We've been doing a push in terms of education about blogs and Internet safety, and this is a component of that."
The district doesn't intend to monitor student-created Internet content-with more than 3,000 student blogs the job would require at least one full-time employee who is also cognizant of free speech issues, Todoric adds. "If I were a student, I'd be upset to feel monitored," she says. "But I would also expect to be held accountable if what I wrote created a problem."
The Los Angeles Unified School District has put a similar measure in place, says Patrick Luce, the district's director of IT security, but has also blocked sites that don't align with its acceptable use policy, which includes MySpace. "Sites that are moderated are fine, but something like MySpace has too much room for abuse," says Luce. "It outweighs our ability to police it."
The wrangle over what constitutes free speech could become more of an issue in the future. At Kirkwood High School in St. Louis, Mo., five students who posted a "hot or not" list of female students received suspensions even though the list was not on school servers, nor was it brought to school. The district defended its actions by noting that the effect was disruptive to the student learning environment, but the students' parents and the local chapter of the ACLU think otherwise.
"There's concern with these type of cases that the students' First Amendment rights don't completely disappear," says Anthony Rothert, head of the St. Louis ACLU chapter. "You don't shed your rights at the schoolhouse door."
Rothert is working with students who were suspended at Kirkwood to determine if they should file a lawsuit. What many districts will have to define in the near future is what type of limits are put on content that's created away from school, Rothert predicts. Since many MySpace profiles and blogs are whipped up off campus, and don't contain information on illegal activity, they're the equivalent of a kid bragging in the local McDonalds -irritating to those around him, perhaps, but tough to define as disruptive to school operations.
"Making people uncomfortable is not a crime," says Rothert. "Schools should be given latitude to protect other students, but at some point, it's the responsibility of the parents to teach kids what's appropriate. That's not the school's job."
If the social networking legislation does go through, it has the potential to make the situation even stickier, notes Luce.
"It's a terrible idea," he says. "Who's going to define what a social networking site is, first of all? Then you have the concern over the number of workarounds [such as via proxy servers] and finally, there's the question of the extent of responsibility a school has if students use the workarounds to get to the blocked sites."
Aside from the question of how much schools will oversee blogging, or whether legislation will change access to social networking sites, it's likely that students could be headed toward self-regulation in the future, predicts Steven Rothenberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com. In the past six months, Rothenberg has seen various incidents involving college admissions administrators who are reading student blogs, and don't like what they see.
"There are kids being turned down for internships, or even for colleges, based on what they put on their MySpace profile or in their blogs," he says. "Right now, kids are just trying out the medium, the same way they passed notes or used party lines. But my guess is that once they start to see the impact of their exhibitionism, they'll tone it down."
Elizabeth Millard is a technology writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.