School District to Police Students' Online Activities

A suburban Illinois school district is extending its disciplinary policy to the Internet. Administrators at Vernon Hills and Libertyville high schools maintain that, just as students are barred from smoking or drinking anywhere off campus, they can also be punished for posting "inappropriate" material online on sites such as MySpace.com.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

The Internet is changing the rules for one school district in suburban Chicago. Kids there who misbehave online can now face serious consequences, even when they're not at school.

Sandy Hausman reports.

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SANDY HAUSMAN reporting:

About 80 percent of students at Vernon Hills and Libertyville High Schools take part in extracurricular activities, playing in the orchestra or on an athletic team; writing for the student newspaper or joining a club; but kids here can now be banned from taking part, if they're identified on a blog or Web site which depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior.

Mr. PRENTICE LEE (Associate Superintendent of Schools, District 128): If information is brought to our attention then we'll investigate it, just as we would look into information if Monday morning, somebody walked into the athletic director's office and said, you know, there were five football players who were drinking at a party on Saturday night.

HAUSMAN: Associate Superintendent Prentice Lee adds that community district 128 will not actively patrol the Internet in search of violators.

Mr. LEE: We're a public school and public schools do not have those kinds of resources. It would literally be impossible to do a 24/7 blog search on 3,200 students.

HAUSMAN: Kids not involved with extracurriculars might not be subject to penalties. Still, students Vanessa Savalos(ph) and Julia Galchenko(ph), are appalled by the new policy governing blogs.

Ms. VANESSA SAVALOS (Student): I know that there's nothing bad on mine, but it's a little creepy when you know that your teachers are looking at your MySpace.

Ms. JULIA GALCHENKO (Student): They have no right to do that. Especially if they got us in trouble for it, because it's an outside of school thing.

HAUSMAN: Others like Gene Pavelko(ph) and Dana Smessard(ph) are less concerned.

Mr. GENE PAVELKO (Student): I'm not surfing anything bad, so I'm all right.

Ms. DANA SMESSARD (Student): If students are going to be, like, stupid enough to put, like, inappropriate things on there, then they should be punished for it.

HAUSMAN: And on the night the school board voted unanimously to impose the policy, only one parent showed up to complain.

Mary Greenberger(ph) said home based blogs and websites were none of the board's business.

Ms. MARY GREENBERGER (Parent): I think it is up to the parent to monitor their child if they're on MySpace or if they're on one of the other blogs.

HAUSMAN: Northwestern University law professor Jim Speta says a lot more parents may be coming around if and when the policy is applied to their kids. An expert on the First Amendment and the Internet, Speta says students who express themselves on the Web do face greater risks than earlier generations.

Professor JIM SPETA (Northwestern University): You can take a site down from the Internet, but if it's been up for a little while, it gets archived. The Internet doesn't forget.

HAUSMAN: The law is murky on what schools can do about student behavior in the community. For example, a high school football player who takes part in a team hazing ritual could be penalized, even if the action occurred at someone's house on a weekend.

Mr. SPETA: I think it's natural to pay attention to the representatives of their school, such as athletes and truly inappropriate behavior; such as theft and vandalism. It does concern me if schools get in the business of monitoring the extracurricular speech, the extracurricular gossip that all high schools students engage in.

HAUSMAN: He's sympathetic to students who say the new school policy is a violation of their privacy, but it's time they learned the facts of life. The Internet is a very public place and even adults have far less privacy, thanks to the World Wide Web.

Mr. SPETA: The price that I paid to buy my house has always been the piece of information that somebody could find out by going down to the Cook County recorder of deeds, but that was a lot of effort and no one really bothered to do that. In the days of the Internet, that limited publicness is now massively public.

HAUSMAN: That's why Speta keeps a close watch on his young children when they're using the family computer. He expects to see a growing number of schools regulating student conduct online and a growing number of parents contesting school punishments in court.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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