JOLIET – Some local school leaders are not sure if they’ll make requests allowed under an Illinois law to receive social media passwords from students suspected of breaking disciplinary rules.
A 2014 state law allows elementary and secondary schools to request passwords or other information needed to access student’s social networking accounts if they are suspected of violating disciplinary rules. Schools would need reasonable cause to make a request.
Schools are required to notify students, as well as parents or guardians, of the law.
Joliet and Plainfield school officials said no parents have come forward with concerns about the law after notifying them. An Illinois Principals Association legal expert said the law – while well-intentioned – is an invasion of privacy and should be used with absolute caution.
Tom Hernandez, Plainfield School District 202 spokesman, said he doesn’t foresee the school district requesting social media passwords from students.
“We will do what we need to do to maintain a safe learning environment free of distraction for our students. … If we need to take it a step further, we will do what is appropriate within the law,” he said.
Plainfield school officials have policies already in place that make students accountable for their social media activity. School officials try to crack down on cyberbullying and online threats, he said.
“We’ve had those kind of situations and we have responded in that regard and we’ve had kids suspended and even expelled on things that have happened on social media. That’s not new,” he said.
The law hasn’t been used by Joliet Public Schools District 86 since it was passed, said Nick Sakellariou, the district’s chief legal counsel. He said school officials would need to determine student on-campus and off-campus misconduct before making such a request.
In the past, if a disruptive activity, such as a fight, occurred off-campus, that would not be cause for disciplinary action by schools, he said.
“If that activity then spills into the classroom and come Monday, these same kids are being disruptive, well then, you have some authority to impose discipline. In the cyberworld, I think the same thing is true,” Sakellariou said.
Worry over rights
The law’s opponents say it is intrusive and a violation of people’s First Amendment rights, Sakellariou said. He thought it could be possible some schools might get caught in constitutional litigation if people believed they went too far requesting student social media passwords.
That concern is shared by Brian Schwartz, Illinois Principals Association associate director and general counsel.
He said the law is well-intentioned and puts parameters on a schools’ authority to make requests. But the association has told school officials that authority should not be used in most circumstances, he said. In most cases, it would be an invasion of privacy.
“I think the message has been heard and I think school officials realize there are better ways to get information they need,” he said.