There’s a push nationwide to monitor and punish students’ online behavior. According to the Des Moines Register,

West Burlington is believed to be the first Iowa school district to consider including cyberspace as part of its student conduct policy, which says bad behavior can sideline children from sports, dances and other school activities. The plan not only raises the hackles of students … it raises questions about where schools should draw the line between disciplining students and violating their free speech rights.

Court decisions have protected and punished student speech online. To make sure they get it right, West Burlington school district is trying to codify the rights of the school district to enforce speech codes outside the school and school activities (including dances, drama programs, and sports events). According to the Superintendent Jim Sleister, students do not have free-speech rights when their activities are illegal or “would cast themselves or the school in a bad light. … They represent the school.”

One parent supporting the policy change fears that the internet is an unmonitored “playground” where kids can run wild. Another parent worries that students will be judged unfavorably by college admissions or prospective employers.

It is clear that the internet is a significant space for free expression among young people. While behavior online, as well as offline, may not be ideal either for “representing the school” or acting in front of one’s parents, this policy change attempts to make all teenage behavior student behavior. Teenagers are not consummate students*, and should be given the space to act without the burden of representing their school.

School districts should not be instated as watchguards to protect students from posting something online that may affect their college or employment careers. Parents can play this role (there’s an interesting commentary on this here). And better yet: students can be taught internet literacy so they can how to manage their online presentation (since 22% of employers check Facebook profiles and, surprise, so do colleges).

Schools have a great opportunity to teach media literacy: to explain how social network sites are built, who uses them and how, and how students can protect their privacy. They are in a position to teach students how to smartly navigate the new opportunities (post anything, anywhere, anytime!) in ways that recognize the risks, responsibilities and freedoms they provide.

*This reminds me of the 2006 federal guidelines which considered all women pre-menopause as “pre-pregnant.”

Comments very welcome.