INDIANAPOLIS — Increasing crackdowns on what educators deem inappropriate online behavior have outraged students and free-speech advocates who see administrators as pursuing school rules too far beyond the classroom.
The battleground is online journals, or blogs, and popular Web sites such as MySpace.com, where teens post comments about their daily lives — including school. School officials say such postings can be disruptive to education; critics say schools should not have the power to punish students for comments posted from a home computer.
"The school system has no right to sit there and tell us what we can and cannot do at home. They can control what we do at school, but when it gets home, the only people who can tell us what to do is our parents, not the school," said Kayla Wiggington, a 17-year-old junior at Whiteland High School in suburban Indianapolis who uses MySpace to keep in touch with friends.
The school board in the Whiteland-based Clark-Pleasant school district will vote Oct. 17 on a proposed policy that would put students and teachers on notice that they are legally responsible for anything they post online, including material deemed defamatory, obscene, proprietary or libelous. The nearby Beech Grove district on the city's south side has a similar policy.
"If something starts online and spills into school, we want to be able to deal with that and restore order to the school," said Clark-Pleasant Director of Technology Jim White, who wrote the proposal.
Carmel High School, north of Indianapolis, has used its policy against harassment and bullying to punish two students for online comments.
One students was expelled for posting explicit comments about a teacher on MySpace, said Steve Dillon, director of student services for Carmel Clay Schools. Another was suspended for 10 days and given community service for posting racial comments about a teacher.
"Kids look at the Internet as today's restroom wall," said Dillon. "They need to learn that some things are not acceptable anywhere."
Most districts already block access on school computers to popular Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, but few have policies restricting students' online speech. However, an official with the Indiana School Boards Association says an increasing number of inquiries about such policies have been made.
"Lots of schools are asking what they can do," said Julie Slavens, the association's staff attorney. "In the past six months, I've had more calls than ever before."
She said such policies serve to remind students that the Internet isn't as private as they may think and that anyone can read what they write online.
But Henry Karlson, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, said students have First Amendment rights and that parents, not schools, should monitor teenagers' out-of-school behavior.
"It's chilling and gives the effect that people don't know what they can and cannot say," Karlson said. "How disruptive does it have to be for the school to be able to control it?"