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Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Did Facebook search violate Everett student’s rights?

Everett student told to open page to help in bullying probe

  • Samantha Negrete, an eighth-grader at North Middle School in Everett, was asked to open her Facebook page to help a school administrator investigate a...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Samantha Negrete, an eighth-grader at North Middle School in Everett, was asked to open her Facebook page to help a school administrator investigate another student. Her parents, Kevin McCollum and Connie Becerra, seen here at home in south Everett, contacted the ACLU afterward.

EVERETT -- A vice principal investigating a case of cyber-bullying pressured a North Middle School girl into opening up her Facebook page so he could look at what her friends had been posting, according to the girl's mom.
The issue raises questions about what rights school officials have to ask to see students' social media sites and whether such actions violate students' privacy.
Connie Becerra said her 14-year-old daughter, Samantha Negrete, was never suspected to be a part of the cyber-bullying. But she was called into the vice principal's office and was told to type in her password and log onto her account.
"He did not have the right to bring her in and bully her and coerce her," Becerra said. "Our kids do have a right to privacy."
The vice principal's actions are "likely illegal and most certainly improper," said Linda Mangel, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Becerra contacted the Seattle office of the ACLU when she learned what happened last month.
"It's an awful thing to do to a 14-year-old kid who's done nothing wrong," Mangel said.
The vice principal was trying to find a picture taken on school grounds during school hours, said Mary Waggoner, school district spokeswoman. One student was later suspended for cyber-bullying.
"Everything we know at this point is that the assistant principal acted out of an interest in intervening in cyber-bullying," Waggoner said. "Given the concern about cyber-bullying, one might understand his motivation to make sure that it didn't happen at school."
Still, the district has hired an outside investigator to see "who said what, under what circumstances and under what authorization," Waggoner said.
The school district also is reviewing its policies on when and how staff may ask to look at a student's personal social media accounts, she said.
Waggoner said that she was not aware of other issues of staff perusing students' social media sites. The topic does need some clarification, she said. "In that respect, this situation is a good thing. We expect more clarity will come from this."
Both the federal and state constitution protect against unwarranted searches, such as a public school district perusing a student's Facebook page, Mangel said.
"What we don't know is whether this is an isolated incident or this is the tip of the iceberg and this administration has been conducting other improper searches of Facebook pages or email accounts," Mangel said.
Samantha, an eighth-grader at North Middle School, earns A's and B's, has never been in trouble at school and participates in wrestling, volleyball, basketball and choir, said her mom.
Samantha said that she feels she's been unnecessarily pulled into a controversy.
"I wasn't the bully," Samantha said. "It wasn't my fault. I feel like other kids are blaming me for what happened."
She was likely called to the school's office because she's an honor student and athlete whom the vice principal "knew had respect for authority and used that authority to tell her to open up her Facebook page," Mangel said.
The ACLU has produced an online booklet,
">"Student Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age,"
to help guide both school districts and students on the issue, she said.
If the vice principal was concerned about cyber-bullying, he could simply have talked to the alleged victim to have that student show him the post, Mangel said. "He didn't need to go trolling through an innocent party's Facebook page."
In the past, such questions involving schools have most often involved cell phone and email searches, she said. But more recently, the questions increasingly involve social media sites, such as Facebook.
"Well-intentioned administrators are overreaching because they think, somehow, it's their duty to investigate in this manner," Mangel said.
Last year, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University reported on a federal court case in Minnesota that involved student privacy rights on Facebook in which the student involuntarily relinquished her password.
Students enjoy a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by school officials, according to the ruling.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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