THE LOOP — A new state law on cyberbullying is giving some school districts the leeway to demand that students surrender passwords to social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, targets online harassment between students and gives district broad leeway to come up with policies to combat it.
Chicago Public Schools is resisting the move — taken by some district Downstate — to compel students to surrender passwords, saying its monitoring practices are sufficient. But the new state law is raising concerns with free-speech groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Chicago Public Schools is committed to providing safe learning environments for its students and does not tolerate bullying, and CPS staff are trained to identify and respond to incidents of bullying," said CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman. "Additionally, recent updates to our Student Code of Conduct include an expansion of the anti-bullying policy to prevent discrimination and harassment and to ensure that all of our schools are welcoming and tolerant for students of all backgrounds."
Yet Huffman pointed to CPS policy that discourages forcing students to give up their passwords, and instead calls on administrators to rely on publicly available posts or information gathered from other students and their parents to police bullying online.
Huffman emphasized that CPS takes bullying of any kind seriously, and it has recently expanded its policy calling for bullying incidents to be reported to school administrators, who then must investigate. Those initial bullying reports can be made anonymously.
Yet she again insisted that CPS was not expanding its reach to go after student passwords and enter their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
ACLU of Illinois spokesman Edwin Yohnka said that's a rational approach, but that his office has been inundated with inquiries this week after a downstate Belleville district used a new state law to permit administrators to compel students to give up their passwords.
Yohnka said the ACLU opposed the new state law, which actually says nothing about social-media passwords. Instead, it gave districts the leeway to come up with their own cyberbullying policies, as along as they were registered with the state Board of Education and conveyed to students and parents.
"They really wanted to empower, if you will, schools to be able to conduct investigations where there were evidence and complaints of cyberbullying," Yohnka said. "They didn't really tell them how they were supposed to do it."
That has led to districts seizing the right to student passwords and reports the practice could become widespread across the state. Yohnka said some hysterical media reports were "off to the races" on the subject.
Yohnka said the ACLU was really opposed to schools policing activity that was not actually done in school, adding that's a parent's domain.
"The idea that you have to give up your privacy without some accusation, without being part of some investigation, is absurd," Yohnka said.
"There is actually a previous cyberbullying law," Yohnka added. That said schools could request student passwords, "if there was an allegation of cyberbullying," but parents had to be informed the request was being made, and there was no set penalty if a student or parent simply rejected the request. "In that respect, it really is kind of the classic toothless tiger," Yohnka said.
Yohnka said the ACLU had reached out to the state school board and school administration groups on the new law and surrendering passwords, "and nobody thinks that's what this law does."
But rogue districts are still attempting it, he said, it just should be clear — and gratefully so — that Chicago is not one of them.
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