Teachers strike back at students' online pranks
Students are increasingly facing lawsuits and expulsions for targeting their teachers online.
Tech-savvy teenagers are increasingly paying a heavy price – including criminal arrest – for parodying their teachers on the Internet.Skip to next paragraph
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Tired of fat jokes and false accusations of teacher-lounge partying or worse, teachers and principals are fighting back against digital ridicule and slander by their students – often with civil lawsuits and long-term suspensions or permanent expulsions.
A National School Boards Association (NSBA) study says that as many as one-third of American teens regularly post inappropriate language or manipulated images on the Web. Most online pranks deride other students. But a NSBA November 2006 survey reported 26 percent of teachers and principals being targeted.
"Kids have been pulling pranks on teachers and principals since there have been schools in the US, but now there's an edge to it – the tone and tenor of some of these attacks cross the line," says Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina.
In the growing backlash against these cybergoofs, however, real-world norms of propriety are being pitted against the uncertain jurisdictions of the Digital Age. A new test may be emerging on how far online lampooning can go, say First Amendment experts – and to what extent schools can control off-campus pranks.
Cracking down on online bullying
Currently, 45 states have so-called cyberstalking laws and 11 prohibit cyberbullying. Until now, the concern has largely been for students, 80 percent of whom reported Internet bullying in 2006, according to NBTA.
After the suicide of a Missouri girl who was bullied online by an adult, even small towns have begun to crack down. Dardenne Prairie, Mo., where the girl lived, raised the penalty for cyberharassment to a misdemeanor – the highest municipal charge allowed by state law.
"[W]e're starting to look at [bullying] from a whole other angle," says Bob Menichino, a Dardennes Prairie alderman in a phone interview. "People can't just say, 'Sorry, it was a joke,' anymore."
But teachers can be particularly vulnerable to online attacks, too, because they are in positions of authority. Legally, they are not usually considered public persons, however, and are thus not fair game under US libel laws, says Regina Bartholomew, the general counsel for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
Still, in many cases, "the damage is already done by the time the teacher hears about it," says Eddie Davis, president of the North Carolina teachers' association.
In the so-called "Teacher Sux" case in Pennsylvania, for example, a high school student put up a website about a teacher with threats and comments such as "she shows off her fat ... legs."
The lawsuit against the student said that after viewing the web page, the teacher felt unable "to go out of the house and mingle with crowds."
Few cities have gone as far as Charlotte, N.C., in cracking down on online attacks against teachers. Last August, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hired cyber-crimes expert Det. Kenny Lynch to deal with the growing number of complaints.