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ACLU wins settlement for sixth-grader’s Facebook posting

Published: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

Riley Stratton remembers all too well the day her Minnewaska, Minn., school counselor brought her into a room, with a police officer present, and demanded she cough up access to her Facebook account.

“I was in was in tears; I was embarrassed when they made me give over my password,” Riley, 15, said Tuesday.

That action was at the center of a $70,000 settlement that the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota announced Tuesday between Riley’s family and the Minnewaska schools in central Minnesota. The school district agreed to enhance student privacy as part of the settlement in the social media lawsuit.

Riley was in sixth grade when she posted on Facebook 2 years ago that she hated a school hall monitor because she was mean. After school officials called her in and threatened in-school suspension for what she said on social media, she went back on Facebook and asked who snitched.

“I was a little mad at whoever turned me in, because it was outside school when it happened,” Riley said in an interview.

After another parent complained about a Facebook chat with their son that was of a sexual nature, the school called her in and demanded her password. When she complied, they navigated her Facebook page in front of her.

“A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska Area Schools, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media, doesn’t mean the rules have somehow changed and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” said attorney Wallace Hilke, who helped lead the ACLU’s case.

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

Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Schmidt, who took over in July and wasn’t in charge when the 2012 dispute began, said “it’s a fine line” between schools monitoring bullying online and cases like Riley’s.

“It’s difficult to draw that line and know when what’s being said outside might cause a disruption in the school day,” the superintendent said.

He said schools have to sometimes fill a parent’s role “especially with a student that age.” Riley was 13 at the time.

She’s now being home-schooled because she was so embarrassed by the flap “and didn’t want to go to any other school anymore.”

Schmidt said the school’s actions have been misunderstood and new policies addressing online behavior have been added to school rules, along with training for teachers and staff.

“I don’t think the school’s intent was to be mean or bully but really to remedy what was viewed as somehow getting off track a little with behavior that wasn’t helping the student or the staff people.”

Riley’s mother, Sandra Stratton, said in an interview that money was never the family’s goal in taking the school to court.

“We want things to change so they would not do this to other kids,” Sandra said. “I’m hoping schools kind of leave it so the parents can punish their own kids for things that happen off school grounds.”

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©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Topics: t000389822,t000027855,t000047572,t000003086,t000012820

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