Every day at Wichita-area schools, students head to class with smartphones, Twitter accounts and countless opinions to share with the world.
That communication avalanche – the constant tweets, texts, Snapchats and digital caterwauls – is something school officials are just beginning to navigate. And they’re doing it amid heightened fears about school violence.
The key question: How far can schools go to regulate, restrict or punish student speech or related behavior in the interest of school safety?
“It is absolutely a fine line, and sometimes an uncomfortable line … with regard to what schools can and cannot do,” said Michele Zahner, supervisor of safety services for Wichita public schools.
“In general, it’s not necessarily what is being said in social media, but the impact that it has on the school day and the behaviors that can result as a product of what is being said.”
A Heights High School student was suspended for six days recently after school officials said he “acted to incite a disturbance” with a tweet that angered some athletes and others.
Wesley Teague, 18, “posted some very inappropriate tweets about the Heights athletic teams, aggressively disrespecting many athletes,” an assistant principal wrote in a letter to Teague and his parents.
On May 2, Teague posted on his personal Twitter page: “ ‘Heights U’ is equivalent to WSU’s football team.” Critics claimed it was a thinly veiled insult directed toward athletes who had coined the phrase, likening their endeavors and bravado to Wichita State University’s non-existent football team.
School officials later said Teague’s tweet prompted “a negative reaction from many students, including threats of fights in the school … (and) caused a major disruption to the school day.”
Teague was suspended for the remainder of the school year and barred from participating in a track meet and a senior convocation ceremony. He later was allowed to attend the convocation and will walk with his graduating class during Heights’ commencement Sunday.
District officials said other students were suspended as part of the incident but have not said how many or for how long.
News reports about the incident drew national attention and prompted debate over such issues as student speech, social media etiquette and a school’s right to discipline students based on their comments or potential reactions to them.
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit education foundation based in Nashville, Tenn., said courts in recent years have given administrators increasing latitude to respond to student speech, in part over fears ignited by high-profile shootings like the ones at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Even so, Policinski said, schools seeking to restrict student expression in the name of safety must show that the speech in question is a “true threat” or that they can reasonably forecast substantial disruption.
“The First Amendment does not empower school officials to make value judgments as to the quality of our speech or the nature of it,” he said. “Nothing in the First Amendment protects us from being upset.”
In a 2000 case in Butler County, a federal court ruled that officials at Bluestem High School overreacted by expelling a student for posting artwork on a classroom door that administrators viewed as threatening.
When evaluating a student’s right to free speech, Policinski said, judges often cite a 1969 decision – Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District – in which the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that students had the right to wear black armbands in school as a symbol of protest against the Vietnam War.
That decision prompted the oft-cited quote, “Students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” And it established a precedent that schools could limit students’ free-speech rights only in situations where they could show that the speech would cause a substantial disruption to the school day.
While student privacy rights prevent the Wichita district from sharing all the details about Teague’s case, Policinski said the incident raises questions and should prompt discussion.
“This seems to be, somebody tweeted something that other kids didn’t like,” he said.
“When we understand that the antidote to speech we don’t like is more speech, there’s less of an attempt to shut down the speaker and instead, maybe engage in a conversation and some real instruction about the nature of free speech.”
Wendy Johnson, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said some assumptions and conclusions around the Heights case have been “unfair” and misdirected.
“The most troubling thing … is the suggestion that this was a First Amendment issue and that the district took the actions it did because of a single statement that it didn’t like,” she said.
“It’s not about a single tweet or a single statement that we may like or not like. It’s about the environment that our administrators have to maintain in schools every day. … It all ties back to our obligation to maintain a safe and orderly school environment for our students.”
Ronny Lieurance, chief of the Goddard school district’s police department, said the prevalence of technology and social media has changed the school landscape and the way officials approach potential threats.
“Back in the dark ages, before technology, if you heard that someone said something about you or about a friend of yours, you might have a fleeting thought of an explosive response,” Lieurance said.
“Now you can immediately and instantly press a few buttons, type a few words, send that hateful response and further escalate whatever the situation might be.
“The majority of things that are said on social media networks are protected First Amendment speech,” he said. “But keeping that in mind, there comes a time when that speech crosses over clearly defined boundaries … and that’s where we become involved and have to take action.”
Several years ago, Goddard officials investigated a case in which a student was accused of posting defamatory statements about the high school principal on a Facebook page, Lieurance said. An investigation later showed the page to be an alias, created by one person in another person’s name, he said.
Social media has added a new playing field and a new level of concern about school safety and cyber bullying, Lieurance said. And its vastness is school officials’ greatest challenge.
“We had a lot of parents and even school board members that wanted us to look at posts on a daily basis. You know, ‘See what these kids are saying. See what these kids are talking about.’ And I was the one of the first ones to stand up and say, ‘We’re not doing that.’ ”
Jeff Hirsch, principal at Challenger Intermediate School in Goddard, said social media is “a new area for us that we’re learning as it’s growing so quickly.”
Part of that learning process has been an evolution toward a more proactive approach toward technology, he said, and teaching children and families about responsible use of social media.
“When a child gets their driver’s license, a parent will many times sit down with that child and talk about their expectations about being safe,” Hirsch said.
“With a cellphone you have a lot of the same risks, but it’s usually, ‘Hey, here you go. Here’s your cellphone. Have fun.’ ”
More than a year ago in northeast Kansas, Emma Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School, was summoned to her principal’s office and urged to pen an apology letter after she posted a disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback during a school field trip. The tweet had been flagged by someone on Brownback’s staff and reported to organizers of the Youth in Government program.
That case also drew national attention, with many social media experts, political strategists and bloggers pointing to it as an example of Internet monitoring run amok and school discipline gone bad.
A few days after the stir, Brownback apologized for his staff’s reaction to the tweet, adding that “freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” Sullivan was not punished.
Johnson, the Wichita spokeswoman, said “teachable moments happen on a regular basis” in Wichita schools. Teachers and administrators often instruct students about being responsible online as well as about being mature in their comments and responses to Internet chatter.
Even so, she said, the priority is maintaining a safe and orderly school environment.
“If you’re in a movie theater tonight and someone were to stand up in the theater and make a comment that incites violence, will that be handled by sitting down and talking to that person about how wrong they were?” Johnson said.
“Or will it be handled because of the disturbance that it might create or the injuries that might result from it? Every incident has to be taken at face value based upon the circumstance in which it occurs, and that’s what we do.”