When social networking crosses the line

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am


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The News

Cases of students being punished for inappropriate behaviour on Facebook have increased in recent years, raising the question of whether schools should penalise students for their activities on social networking websites.

Some students from Hong Kong International School were given demerits after using bad language on Facebook. In countries such as the US and India, students have even been suspended from school for cyber-bullying.

A Hong Kong primary school student was punished by school authorities because of improper acts online. The student was said to have created a fake account on Facebook and used it to scold his classmates.

In Hong Kong, some schools have clear rules about behaviour involving bullying and harassment. For instance, according to Korean International School's rules, 'Students who bully or harass others will be dealt with promptly and seriously. This applies to the use of social media like Facebook'.

Opposing this intrusion into their private lives, teenagers from Hong Kong and other countries have created Facebook groups to discuss the issue. Some groups have attracted more than 10,000 members.

Members complain about being punished over improper postings on Facebook. 'I once used the pronoun 'it' in a Facebook note to describe a teacher,' a Hong Kong student said. 'Someone informed my class teacher and I was lectured by disciplinary staff.'

Another student from the group expressed her discontent, claiming that she was being questioned after creating a Facebook page to oppose a teacher.

Social workers emphasise that Facebook is a place for students to share their thoughts privately. Teachers should warn students before taking any disciplinary action.

The Issue

Are schools violating students' privacy by punishing them for their actions online?

It has been asked whether schools have the right to suspend students over Facebook postings. Some claim that as long as the postings do not involve illegal acts, the school is violating students' privacy by suspending them for inappropriate online behaviour.

'I did this on my laptop in my room, sitting on my chair. I don't know how they can come into my house and suspend me for what I did in my own time,' claimed a student who was suspended from school over offensive posts on Facebook.

Articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Hong Kong's Basic Law are quoted by those who believe that schools should not intervene.

For instance, Article 12 of the UDHR states that 'No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence'. Article 30 of the Basic Law says the 'freedom and privacy of communication of Hong Kong residents shall be protected by law'.

In 2008, Katherine Evans, a former student from the US state of Florida, sued her high school principal over freedom of speech abuses after being suspended. In late 2007, the girl created a Facebook group with the name 'Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met' to criticise her English teacher.

In January this year, Californian student Donny Tobolski was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after his school suspended him for expressing frustration over a teacher on Facebook. The ACLU wrote a letter to the principal, stating that Donny's post was 'protected speech' and that the student should not be punished since the post had not 'materially or substantially disrupted the school environment'.

Recently, teachers in some countries have been discouraged or even banned from 'befriending' students on Facebook.

With concerns over increasingly blurred boundaries between teachers' professional and private lives, British teachers were warned not to 'friend' students on Facebook. Teachers should let school management know if they befriend parents or former students.

A new law in Missouri, in the US, inspired by a 13-year-old girl who was assaulted by a teacher, has imposed a ban on social networking between students and teachers. Although teachers can have a public fan page, they are not able to 'friend' a student with their own private profile.

Whether Hong Kong should follow these examples is something we can think about.

What People Are Saying

'Schools need to develop their own guidelines to handle issues regarding social media interaction between students and teachers. Parents, students and teachers have to be informed about the guidelines. If students have a clear picture of the dos and don'ts of social media, they will not feel that they are being spied on. The guidelines should treat teachers and students fairly.'

Ken Ngai, Website Director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups

'The electronic world we now live in necessitates people making more responsible choices or running the risk of their behaviour becoming very public.'

Kay Joyce, Principal of Burnsville High School in the United States

'I always stay alert on social networking websites. Besides not filling in details of my school, I also don't 'friend' teachers, and I use a fake name with profile pictures of cartoon characters and celebrities.'

Final Home, a member of the group 'Objecting to teachers penalising students over Facebook'

'There are so many ways that kids get bullied in everyday life, and to have a particular student singled out on Facebook, the school needs to get involved.'

Brook George, parent in Seattle, US

'I don't think there is anything wrong [in posting comments on Facebook]. Teachers and students could be friends on Facebook. I have every teacher in my friend list.'

Yourshowman, an internet user commenting on website Squidoo

'What is the point of making the group? You go to school there. Be positive. If you don't like the school, you should transfer.'

Virginia Ofegbu, 17-year-old US student

'What the student said is merely an opinion and people should have the right to state their opinions out loud. The school does not have the right to dictate what students can and cannot say outside of school hours and off school property.'

dmcgaw, on


Cases from around the world of students being punished for misbehaving on Facebook

January 10, 2008

Forty-two students were questioned in the dean's office and 13 were disciplined at Eden Prairie High School in the United States after school administrators saw pictures of them with alcohol on Facebook. Punishments included suspensions from sports and other activities.

January 14, 2010

More than 20 students at McClure Middle School in Seattle, US, got suspended for 'friending' or becoming 'fans' of a Facebook page which was set up to attack one student at the school. The 20 to 30 kids who joined the 'cyber-bullying' earned suspensions.

January 26, 2010

A seventh-grader at Roxboro Road Middle School in the US was suspended from school for creating a Facebook group page that criticised one of her teachers, while 25 others who became 'fans' of the group were given detention.

February 22, 2010

A 16-year-old at Oak Forest High School in Chicago, US, was suspended from school for five days after creating a Facebook fan page on which he called a teacher a derogatory name.

February 26, 2010

Thirty-five students from Springwood State High School in Australia were suspended from school for cyber-bullying a staff member by creating a Facebook group. A 17-year-old girl was discharged as a school prefect after her account 'auto-accepted' the group's invitation.

July 10, 2010

Six girls at Convent of Jesus and Mary Girls High School in Vadodara, India, were suspended for accusing the school authorities, a teacher and three other students of rigging the election of the head girl on a Facebook 'fan' page. The page was popular with students and alumni of the school.

January 29, 2011

A 15-year-old student from Mesa Verde High School in California, US, was suspended for calling a teacher 'a fat a** who should stop eating fast food' and 'a d**che bag' on Facebook.

March 3, 2011

Two students at Chapel Hill Middle School in Georgia, US were suspended from the school for suggesting on Facebook that a teacher had been abusive. Another was expelled for saying that the teacher had bipolar disorder.

May 18, 2011

A 13-year-old girl from Concord Middle School in the US was suspended from school for five days after saying on Facebook that she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her maths teacher. A parent of one of the teenager's friends reported the post, despite the teenager having her profiles' privacy settings on.