A Boston-area school superintendent cited the "24/7" rule in suspending 11 students from athletic teams recently. The students were suspended after pictures surfaced on Facebook showing them in possession of alcohol and tobacco. The superintendent said the school district wasn't trying to tell students how to run their lives out of school. The code of conduct governing participation in interscholastic sports required the discipline.
This is just the latest example of students suffering the consequences of behavior away from school. It's also a prime example of the impact social networking sites like Facebook have on our lives. Nowadays, regrettable things you do or say may end up causing embarrassment or worse.
The end of the school day, a holiday break, or full-blown summer vacation all mean the same thing to most students: Freedom! "No more teachers, no more rules," etc. The problem is, that feeling of freedom may be just that - only a feeling, and a false one at that.
Conduct Patrolled 365/24/7
You'd have a hard time finding a school anywhere in the US that doesn't have a code of conduct. The code typically explains how the students should behave in their daily interactions with school staff, teachers, and other students. Also, the code usually sets out when, why, and how students are disciplined for violating the code, such as detention, suspension, or expulsion.
It may be natural to assume that the code only applies when school's in session. It's a school code, not a code of laws that apply to everyone all the time - criminal laws, traffic laws, etc. It may not be a wise assumption, though.
In schools across the US, conduct codes are enforced when school's out - sometimes 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Exactly how it works differs from school to school, of course, but in general codes are enforced:
- All year round
- During the school months only
- During the season of a particular sport or while an extracurricular activity is in progress
Very often, conduct codes hit students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities harder than other students. Many codes limit or take away a student's privilege to participate in them if the code is violated. Some codes go further. For instance:
- Some Iowa and Michigan schools may bar a student from extracurriculars for possessing or using illegal drugs at any time during the year
- Certain schools in Virginia may expel students for misusing or abusing school computer equipment or technology in or out of the school
- In one Indiana school district, two high school students were banned from extracurriculars, had to apologize to school staff, and had to undergo counseling. The students posted racy pictures of themselves on their MySpace pages - The pictures were taken and posted during summer vacation. The ACLU is fighting the school in court
No one can seriously disagree that schools have the right, and the need, to maintain discipline, order, and a sense of civility - they promote good learning environments. But when enforcement of school rules extends beyond school grounds and school personal property, there are potential problems.
For one, students do in fact have First Amendment and other rights in and outside of school. The breaking point, usually, is when the student's actions pose a threat to others or disrupt school functions. If students choose to express themselves by posting images on web site or attending a political rally, does the school have a right to intervene?
And what about the parents? Isn't it the parents' jobs teach their children how to make good decisions and to punish bad behavior? Do schools overstep into the realm of parental rights when they discipline students for out-of-school and/or non-school related behavior?
Don't worry if you don't know the answers; they're still being written. Sometimes it takes a lawsuit - like the one in Indiana - to settle matters like these.
In the meantime, read the code of conduct for your child's school. Understand exactly what it covers and when, and the consequences and penalties. Make sure your child understands it, too. If you don't agree with something in the code, raise your concerns at the next school board meeting.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Does a school have to refund fees paid for sports or extracurriculars if a student is banned because of a code violation?
- Do code violations go on a student's permanent record? Can they be removed from the record?
- What can a parent do if his child is disciplined for violating the code but another student isn't, even though both students did the exact same things?