Back to school special report: Be smart with social media

Communication and ground rules is key to keeping social media enjoyable and under control.  - Journal art
Communication and ground rules is key to keeping social media enjoyable and under control.
— image credit: Journal art

By Dennis Box/editor The Enumclaw Courier-Herald

Social media is both a popular and polarizing issue for parents, school districts and students.

Understanding the ins and outs of  social media means it can be a way for adults and kids to enjoy pictures, videos and interesting stories.

Being smart with social media is the key.

There is a dark side if used for the wrong ends. Social media can be dangerous if a few rules and precautions are not observed and understood.

Families and schools should communicate clearly on the rules of the road for cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Social media is a lightening fast form of communication, which can quickly and easily spin out of control.

Communication is the key to keeping social media under control and enjoyable.

Keeping up on privacy settings and making social media accounts private is a good place to start. Remind kids it is socially acceptable to not accept friend requests on Facebook, and that your online friends should be people you also know outside of the Internet.

Washington state law makes it a crime to use social media to harass or bully – this is also known as cyberbullying. The Revised Code of Washington defines bullying and cyberbullying as threatening or causing physical harm. In school interfering with a student’s education, creating a fearful or intimidating environment inside school, or disrupting school activities and events can be cyberbullying.

According to the ACLU Washington, public schools don’t have a lot of power to control or discipline students for what they do outside of school, even when it comes to social media. However, in cases of cyberbullying, both school authorities and law officials can become involved.

Steps to prevent cyber bullying include making social media accounts private, not sharing personal information like home addresses or phone numbers and not responding to offensive or rude messages.

The ACLU offers a free online publication titled “Students rights and responsibilities in the digital age.” It can be found at website.

Some of the main points of the publication are listed here:

• The US Constitution and the Washington Constitution guarantee freedom of expression for everyone, including students. Students do  not give up their constitutional rights when they walk onto school grounds.

• In some situations, speech can be restricted at school, even if it  would be protected in the community outside of school. To restrict your speech or impose discipline, the school must have a good reason to believe that your expression will disrupt school or infringe on the rights of others.

• Keep in mind that speech on controversial subjects  may sometimes disrupt school if done at the wrong time or place – such as giving a sexually suggestive speech at a school assembly,  or promoting illegal drug use at a school function. In other cases, schools can limit controversial subjects if the school is sponsoring the speech – such as when the school publishes a newspaper. But in most situations, school administrators and teachers cannot prevent you from saying something just because it is controversial.

When speech on sensitive topics stirs passionate feelings, the best  response is usually more speech – not less.

• True threats, defamatory statements (slander/libel), and obscene speech are not protected speech, even if written online. You can be arrested and charged for tweeting a threat to another person.

• The constitutional right to freedom of expression generally does not cover speech that is, a true threat, a defamatory statement or obscene.

Cyberbullying can get you in trouble with law and school authorities. If your messages online create a severe distraction to another student’s ability to learn, create an atmosphere of intimidation or fear, disrupt school activities, or threaten physical harm to another student, school authorities and police will get involved.

• Remember, there is no such thing as a “private” social media account. Having your account set up with privacy settings does not protect you if you post threatening or obscene messages.

• Just as anybody can read a letter to the editor that is printed in the newspaper, anybody can read what is written on a public webpage. If you post information online,  on a friend’s public profile, or post to Facebook or Twitter, your comments are visible to anybody. This includes school officials, future employers, and law enforcement, who can look at it just as anyone else can.

• The golden rule of social media: if you wouldn’t want your grandparents reading or saying aloud what you wrote online (imagine the awkward family dinners), you probably shouldn’t post it.

School and Law Enforcement searches

• If your school asks your permission for a voluntary search of your electronics, you do not have to say yes. Your school is not allowed to search your cell phone or personal laptop without reasonable suspicion that you’ve broken a school rule. Additionally,  school authorities need to individualize their suspicion; they can’t search every phone in a classroom if they think one student broke a rule.  You can say “no” to a search of you or your property, and you can ask to contact your parents.

• If cell phones and laptops are not allowed on school grounds or during class time, the school can confiscate your electronics until the end of they day, and then they must be returned. The school still cannot search your electronics, even if they are confiscated.

• The rules are different when law enforcement officials search students. To conduct a search at school, they generally must follow the same restrictions that apply outside of school – which usually means getting a warrant. These rules also apply to police officers working in schools as “School Resource Officers.”

Be polite but firm when talking with law enforcement, and never physically resist an officer.

• Being searched by law enforcement?

If any officer, including a school resource officer, wants  to search you or your belongings – including your personal technology (cell phone, PDA, laptop) – you can:

• Ask if they have a warrant.

• If they insist on searching without a warrant, tell them that you do not consent to the search.

• Ask if you are free to leave.

• Tell the officer you want to talk to your parent or a lawyer before answering any questions.

Remember, you never have to say you agree to a search, and you have the right to remain silent.

Rules and Rights

When you go to school, you have to obey your school’s written rules. The school rules must be reasonable and have a logical relationship  to the school’s educational purpose.

If you are in a meeting with school officials and think something is wrong, ask to call a parent or guardian. If you are being accused of wrongdoing, it is best for an adult who is responsible for you to be with you during the meeting. If you are not permitted to call your parents, tell them as soon as possible.

Contact Dennis Box at:



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