School districts grapple with explicit Twitter accounts

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Feb. 1, 2014 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 1, 2014 at 8:02 p.m.

This screen shot shows the Twitter account of South Texas Schools. The account had more than 10,000 followers as of Saturday night.

This screen shot shows the Twitter account of South Texas Schools. The account had more than 10,000 followers as of Saturday night.   Contributed photo for The Victoria Advocate

Ally Graham recently played a doo-wop singer in the "Little Shop of Horrors."

The 17-year-old loves drama - but not when it's occurring online.

The East High School student ignores the anonymous Twitter accounts, @SouthTXSchools and @WeAreSouthTX, which encourage students throughout the Crossroads area to send explicit school stories.

The accounts' owner used the 140-character platform to post an untrue, hurtful story about Graham's best friend. The tweet was posted a month ago, and the girls didn't go to a teacher for help partly because if you block one account, another pops up, Graham said.

"It's just really hurtful, and I don't understand why people have to be so mean," she said. "I just don't think the teachers really care. It's social media, and they just don't think it's true, and it's a waste of time."

In a world where people are sharing their every thought online, schools are trying to find a balance between First Amendment protected speech and cyber bullying.

Twitter is not blocked on the iPads students use in the Cuero school district because it has an instructional value, said Superintendent Jim Haley.

He recently signed up for a Twitter account, realizing he could continue a discussion about education with others after a conference he attended.

Haley has disciplined a student in the past for posting libelous things about another student on Facebook, which is blocked in the district. In that case, the targeted student was named, and the poster was easy to track.

Haley said he believes in free speech, but "some things are better kept to yourself."

"That's why we're very prudent in trying to teach our students the difference between right and wrong," Haley said.

Yoakum school district junior and high school students will attend a cyber safety assembly Feb. 10, Superintendent Tom Kelley said.

The assembly was already planned before the Twitter account went viral. The technology department had also blocked Twitter.

When he read aloud a tweet Thursday that accused female students in the Yoakum school district of getting pregnant at an early age, the superintendent, who has eight years on the job, sighed.

"I have two daughters in this school, and that's just absolutely absurd," Kelley said. "Whoever is doing it, why do we need to say negative things?"

It overshadows all the kids' and teachers' accomplishments, he said.

Most districts in the Crossroads have policies prohibiting cellphone use during class time, and no students reported being bullied on Twitter as of Friday.

"Here's the deal," said Diane Boyett, Victoria school district's spokeswoman. "If a student doesn't do the posting at school, it's not a violation of policy. ... If, however, it reaches the point that it's disrupting the learning environment, it is in fact legal for school districts to intervene."

That's because prior court cases have indicated they can, she said.

Boyett pointed to a case called J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, which was decided in 2002.

In that case, a middle-school student created a website with a picture of his algebra teacher's bloody head. It showed her face turning into Adolf Hitler.

The student was suspended, and while he argued the website was not meant as a threat, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided he could be punished because it was disruptive, according to the First Amendment Center.

Boyett said if the tweets begin naming students, the district might notify law enforcement.

Haley said Cuero district officials would investigate who is behind the account by asking around.

"My experience has been over 25 years is that kids talk," he said.

Joe Larsen, a Houston-based free speech attorney, said these Twitter accounts might be considered by a court to be disruptive.

"Frankly, I think if something defamatory is posted on this website, whoever is the subject of it is completely within his or her right to sue," said Larsen, who had not viewed the Twitter accounts. "If it was a website where people could give anonymous musings on school policy or some matter of legitimate public interest, my thoughts would be different."

If one were to get enough facts to establish each element of defamation, a court could decide to subpoena Twitter to give up the anonymous user's identity so he or she can be named in the lawsuit, he said.

During a trial, a plaintiff would have to prove that the post identifies him or her and was false. He or she would have to prove the poster was negligent.

For a post about a teacher, who could be considered a public figure, a person must show actual malice, which is not malicious in the normal sense of the word, Larsen said.

"It means you published it knowing it was false or had a good reason to know it was false," he said.

Parents could also be sued, and questions may be asked about their involvement or lack thereof. Damages for some defamation lawsuits have been six figures, Larsen said.

Sheryl Murphy randomly checks her son's cellphone and social media.

"What was once passing notes in class is now texting or tweeting each other, and it goes viral. ... Now, it's like wildfire," she said.

Murphy would like to see West High School, where her son attends, consistently enforce its cellphone policy, but she doesn't think everything should fall on the school district's shoulders either.

"We tend to try to expect the school district to do too much of the parenting," Murphy said.

Jun Yang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston-Victoria, likened these Twitter accounts to the website

The website posts photos, names, city of residences and stories of women thought to have had relationships with married men.

The photos used are often taken from the woman's public Facebook account.

As more human resource departments are turning to social media to evaluate candidates, people must be aware of their online presence.

And even when something gets deleted, Google can trace it, Yang said.

She hoped the schools would try to find who is behind the tweets fast.

"It's just like in the old days, but all the bad-mouthing is leaving the cafeteria," she said.

The Victoria Advocate tweeted at the accounts. Instead of responding, the anonymous users asked their followers not to speak with a reporter.

That tweet got 39 retweets and 21 favorites.

One account had more than 10,000 followers as of Saturday night.



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