The details are a bit sketchy at the moment, but it appears one of the thorniest issues for U. S. schools today is in the courts now and the case originated in our corner of the state.
As first noted last Thursday on my blog, two former cheerleaders have sued the Seneca R-7 School District, all members of the board of education, the superintendent and the high school principal for actions taken against them for transgressions allegedly committed off school property and on the girls’ own time.
A television report today (Tuesday) indicates the action, as I speculated in the blog post, was taken in response to an allegation of cyberbullying.
The discussion of just how much control, if any, school officials should have over children’s activities when they are not at school or involved in school functions is one that has continued for decades.
During my years as a newspaper reporter, I wrote several stories about school boards initiating policies that would punish students in extracurricular activities who were involved in drinking, taking drugs, vandalism, or fighting. Some parents spoke up when these policies were being considered, but all of the policies were implemented.
At that time, though my stories did not reflect it, I was sympathetic toward the parents who questioned just why school officials should be able to intrude into their children’s home lives.
It did seem to be a stretch.
How could something a student did over the summer months, for instance, have an impact on the school? While I understood where school officials were coming from, I had a hard time understanding how they thought they could legally take actions against students who were not under their supervision at the time of their alleged transgressions.
My certainty about this vanished with the advent of the internet.
Cyberbullying is a fact of life and many teenagers have mastered the art.
The whispered lies and insults that used to vanish into memory shortly after they were uttered are now available to the world to see on personal computers and I-phones.
And it is much, much easier for people to say hurtful things on the internet than it is to say them face-to-face.
Allegations of cyberbullying and the response of Seneca school officials are at the heart of the lawsuit, and the students do not believe these allegations should be held against them.
The cheerleaders, one of whom was the captain, say they were unfairly removed from the squad by (High School Principal Tosha) Fox, according to the petition. On June 10, they were "informed they would be removed from the cheer squad immediately."
They were being disciplined, according to the lawsuit, "for conduct alleged to have occurred off district property when the school was not in session."
The lawsuit says Ms. Fox singled out the students in an interview with the Seneca News-Dispatch and at an assembly of students in August and that she tried to have the students sign a bullying contract.
One of the students, referred to as "P. A." in the lawsuit says the actions of the principal and board:
-Included removal of her position as cheer captain
-Threat of preclusion from her position as a top All-American Cheerleader
-She was removed as FFA vice president
-Her position on the National Honor Society was threatened.
-She was alienated from other students and from her fellow cheerleaders
-She was precluded from receiving certain scholarships.
The other student, referred to as K. E. also referred to her removal from the cheerleading squad, alienation from students and from her fellow cheerleaders.
Both say the actions of the defendants have been harmful to their "learning environment."
They say their constitutional rights of free speech, association, and privacy have been violated.
They are asking for "fair and reasonable damages," punitive damages, attorney fees, costs, and expenses.
This is a case that area educators should be watching with interest. Whether incidents of cyberbullying take place at school or are launched from a home computer, they most definitely have an effect on the atmosphere and education at the school.
As an eighth grade teacher, I have noted several times situations in which education has been disrupted because someone posted something cruel online the previous evening.
We routinely hear of cyberbullying incidents leading to depression, violence, and in extreme situations, suicide.
School districts are required to provide an education, but to this point, courts have not extended that requirement to extracurricular activities. A negative decision in this case, or in a similar one, could end up leaving the young women in the Lindsay Lohan movie “Mean Girls” end up looking more like Hayley Mills in “Pollyanna.”