ACLU wins case against school for forcing sixth-grader to give up Facebook password

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The American Civil Liberties Union won a $70,000 settlement from a Minnesota school district this week after school officials forced a sixth-grade student to give up her Facebook password and let them search her account.

“I was in tears,” Riley Stratton of Glenwood Minnesota told the StarTribune. “I was embarrassed when they made me give over my password.”

The Minnewaska Area School district suspended Stratton for a Facebook post — published outside of school — in which she said she hated a school hall monitor for “being mean.” Stratton then went back on the social media site and asked which of her connections ratted her out.

After the parent of one of Stratton’s friends complained to the school about the “sexual nature” of a Facebook chat, school officials brought the then-13-year-old girl into a room with a local sheriff and forced her to give up her Facebook password. Officials then searched her page in front her, all the while without consulting a parent.

“A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” Minnesota ACLU attorney Wallace Hilke said.

The district did not admit to any liability in the settlement, but agreed to pay damages of $70,000 and re-write polices limiting the school’s ability to examine the email and social media accounts of students created off school grounds.

“They punished her for doing exactly what kids have done for 100 years — complaining to her friends about teachers and administrators,” Hilke said. “She wasn’t spreading lies or inciting them to engage in bad behavior, she was just expressing her personal feelings.”

According to Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Schmidt, the school wants to make sure kids understand that actions outside of school can be “detrimental.”

“The school’s intent wasn’t to be mean or bully this student, but to really remedy someone getting off track a little,” Schmidt said.

The student’s mother Sandra Stratton said the school made no effort to reach out to her for permission before “interrogating” her daughter.

“They never once told me they were going to bring her into the room and demand her Facebook password,” Sandra Stratton said. “I’m hoping schools kind of leave these things alone so parents can punish their own kids for things that happen off school grounds.”

The school’s new rules state student accounts created off school grounds can only be searched under “reasonable suspicion” of school rule violations.

“Kids’ use of social media is the family’s business,” Hilke said. “Not the school’s business unless it’s a case of cyberbullying or poses a substantial threat to school activities.”

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