An allegation of an assault involving students on campus has instigated disputes throughout CVHS and the community. The school found that the girl’s assault complaint was “unsubstantiated.” The situation raised questions about students’ safety, the administration’s response and social media use.
The controversy began Sept. 25, when a student was allegedly attacked in the CVHS parking lot after school. The story broke when details of what supposedly occurred were shared via Tumblr by the girl’s friend the following week.
The post said the student went to school authorities the day after the incident, but accused the school of failing to properly investigate. It also included photos of the girl’s injuries and the name and picture of a boy allegedly involved.
The online response skyrocketed; the post received over 2,600 notes and was shared through multiple social media platforms, although it was later taken down.
According to Principal Blaine Torpey, school administration had met with the girl involved, followed standard procedure, and found the claim could not be substantiated.
“When the whole social media thing came to light, we looked at that as a moment of reflection,” he said. “That was a doubling of our efforts to be sure.”
On Oct. 8, Torpey released an official statement to parents and teachers, saying an investigation had been launched through the school administration and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and that case had started before the social media backlash. He also said although the cameras around campus “were not perfect,” they did indeed work and the footage was being reviewed.
The following Friday, Oct. 11, Torpey sent out another announcement. After investigating the incident, the administrators and sheriff’s officers were “unable to substantiate the allegations of student misconduct.” He went on to reaffirm the school’s commitment to student safety, and the current systems by which students could reach out for help.
Yet the story did not stop there. In the past statement, Torpey had commented the Internet response “inflamed the situation,” and urged parents to talk with their children about social media. In the following announcement, he reiterated the stance, stating, “This situation has made us all more aware of the potentially negative power of social media when it is used inappropriately.”
The following week Torpey made a similar announcement to CVHS students, warning them about possible consequences of inappropriate social media use. An Alameda County sheriff’s officer will share a presentation about social media and cyberbullying at CVHS this semester, he said.
“The social media response spirals, and toxifies the situation and clouds the real issues,” Torpey said later. “People were being accused of things they may or may not have done, as if this student was being tried in the court of public opinion.”
The situation brought attention to the issue of administrators taking action when social media postings impact school. Students do have the right to free speech in public schools, as long as they don’t disturb classes, disrupt the educational process, or compromise the safety of other students. School administration can take action if any of these misconducts occur, as in the online bullying involving another student. The school and law enforcement can monitor students’ social media activity online if they have public accounts, and administrators can monitor Internet activity on school computers.
Students cannot, however, be forced to show their private social media profiles, unless, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the school has “reasonable individualized suspicion” the student is violating the prescribed rules, or the police have a warrant.
In response to teen use of social media, some schools have stepped up to the challenge, and paid thousands of dollars to monitor student’s internet activity. This past summer, Glendale Unified School District in southern California paid over $40,000 to have both middle and high school students’ social media profiles overlooked. The superintendent justified the action by citing how a similar effort to monitor media the year before had helped save the life of a student who had been exhibiting warning signs of suicide online. Through these programs, schools may be able to find indications of drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, and cyberbullying, but is Internet monitoring intruding too far into student’s privacy?
According to Torpey, students needn’t worry, CVHS is not planning to look into students’ social media.
“I don’t think it’s very practical for us to try to monitor the many different accounts that 3,000 students might have,” he said. “I think that’s really where the families come in.”
Most of all, the administration wants to ensure that students feel safe, and urge students to step forward anytime they feel they need to.
“We care,” said Torpey.