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School officials searched Riley Stratton's email and Facebook accounts after hearing reports that the student ranted online about a mean teacher's aide and engaged in a sexual chat with a male classmate. After the ACLU took up the case, the Minnewaska, Minn., School District settled Stratton’s lawsuit and agreed to change its policies.
A Minnesota school district is paying up after forcing a teenage student to give up her Facebook and email passwords.
Minnewaska Area Schools is shelling out $70,000 in damages to Riley Stratton, a 15-year-old who claimed in a lawsuit that she was hauled in front of school officials and a local police officer and forced to watch while the adults skimmed through her personal social media accounts.
“I was in tears,” the girl from Glenwood recalled to The Star Tribune. “I was embarrassed when they made me give over my password.”
Her mom, Sandra Stratton, is furious that she wasn’t invited to sit in on the interrogation.
“They never once told me they were going to bring her into the room and demand her Facebook password,” Sandra 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 trouble started two years ago, when Stratton was a sixth grader at Minnewaska Area Middle School. The teen published a Facebook post about one of her school's hall monitors, saying she hated that particular teacher’s aide for being mean.
News about the posting soon reached school officials. Even though it was published off school grounds, Stratton was given an in-school suspension.
Attorney Wally Hilke, who took the case pro bono for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the school’s actions were a violation of Stratton’s rights to free speech.
“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.”
The girl went back on Facebook and posted again, asking who had snitched on her.
“I was a little mad at whoever turned me in ’cause it was outside school when it happened,” Stratton said.
Tensions escalated after the mother of one of Stratton’s friends discovered that the young girl was having sexual discussions with her son on Facebook. The mother complained to school officials about the racy chat, which caused administrators to call Stratton to the office.
With a deputy sheriff present, school officials pressured the teen into sharing her passwords. They then searched through her Facebook profile.
For Superintendent Greg Schmidt, the question is what kind of role schools should play in monitoring possible cyberbullying.
“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.
But the situation was so distressing to Stratton that she was taken out of the public school system and is now being home schooled.
“Riley’s really a hero to me, it’s really quite a brave thing she’s done,” Hilke told CBS, “It was very upsetting to her. And, you know, for days she couldn’t return to school, and she lost a tremendous amount of trust in adults through this process.”
As part of the settlement, Minnewaska schools agreed to retrain teachers and change the policy about social media usage. The policy now says students’ electronic records can only be searched if there’s a reasonable suspicion that school rules were violated.
“Educators can still be involved in the lives of young people, they can look out for the interests of young people,” Hilke said. “They just can’t punish them for exercising their constitutional rights.”