Mont Vernon teen calls for revision of social media bill

CONCORD – A Souhegan High School freshman and bullying victim called for a reasonable compromise over legislation that would limit school access to students’ social media accounts.

Fourteen-year-old Jonathan Petersen requested the N.H. Senate Education Committee amend a bill designed to prevent educational institutions – both private and public – from requiring students to disclose the contents of their online social networking pages. The measure is aimed at protecting the privacy of young adults outside of the classroom, but Petersen and other advocacy organizations worry it will impede school administrators from completing thorough investigations into cyberbullying allegations.

“Some kids had bullied me in the past at school, some girls were taking inappropriate pictures of me. I said something kind of inappropriate and I got in trouble. The school didn’t get around to talking with them for a while so by the time they got around to try and talk to the girls about what they’d done, the evidence had already been lost,” said Petersen, who has autism, several days following his testimony in Concord.

“I’m not even quite sure they tried that hard to find it. If this bill does pass, it will make it so they can’t even try to find the evidence and, if that happens, bullying is just going to get worse because the kids will know there won’t be any punishment for what they do because no one will ever know,” he said.

Privacy advocates, however, worry a weakened bill will open the door to schools going on fishing expeditions into students’ personal online accounts.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union argued students have the right to confidential online photo albums, conversations and journal entries that may contact intimate information about their sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs and other private information.

“Historically, New Hampshire has led the country in protecting privacy rights,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the state chapter of the ACLU, in her testimony last week. “(This bill) will help allow the state’s law to keep pace with evolving technology.”

It passed the House earlier this month with bipartisan support and is expected to reappear before the Senate committee for a vote soon. Lawmakers said exceptions for school administrators were not needed because students will report inappropriate or threatening statements.

State Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican and a sponsor of the legislation, described one example on Facebook.

“Another student saw it, showed it to a teacher, the teacher called the police, and it was taken care of,” Boehm said. “On Facebook, most of the information is readily available without getting their user names and passwords.”

The bill’s language does not inhibit schools to rigorously investigate suspected student misconduct and eliminates liability that may come with social media surveillance. Schools also retain full control over district-owned equipment and computer networks.

“A lot of kids I know agree that privacy is a big issue. Most of them do, but there are a lot of kids who also think that there are issues out there that require people to bypass some of that privacy to try to deal with these situations,” Petersen said, who withdrew from school for sometime following the bullying incident. “I personally think that because if you can’t, how are you going to be able to deal with these issues?”

Despite the verbal taunts that hounded him in the classroom, he does advocate for students’ privacy with sensible methods for schools to gather evidence if needed. He continues to avoid social media sites, nevertheless, to prevent further bullying.

“If you could look someone in the face when they’re bullying you, I think it’s a lot easier to deal with it because you know who they are,” he said. “You go online, sometimes you don’t actually know who is bullying you. And you might start thinking it’s the whole world.”

Jennifer Bertrand, a certified Mont Vernon teacher and mother of a disabled child, said hampering a school’s ability to address cyberbullying goes against the best interests of the students, chiefly those with special needs who may be more prone to ridicule. She said it is critical administrators have the opportunity to react quickly when bullying concerns arise and act early before victimized students feel there may not be options other than dropping out of school or causing physical harm to themselves.

“In some cases, this could be a life-or-death issue,” Bertrand said. “I think there could be a reasonable compromise where we’re protecting peoples’ privacy, but we have the ability to intervene early and adequately investigate before it raises to a more serious level.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar legislation was introduced or considered in 22 states. Multiple states, including Delaware and California, have adopted tight access restrictions for schools.

These bills began appearing across the country within the past seven years when initially workers complained their employers were gaining access to personal accounts to protect proprietary information or trade secrets. Since, state legislatures have expanded restrictions to colleges and high schools under the guise of protecting students from online bullying by incorporating language to have them coexist.

“Unfortunately, I think the cyberbullying issue has gotten intermixed with the privacy issue. They are two totally separate issues,” said Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based social-media and Internet privacy lawyer, who in his state helped introduce the first two related bills in the country.

Shear said his heart goes out to all cyberbullying victims, but it is not good public policy to remove privacy protections for young adults.

“There’s only so much a school can do for bullying. Obviously, the parents need to get involved and it literally takes a village to deal with bullying issues,” he added.

Still, the teenage Petersen remembers the feeling of helplessness when his school appeared to him to be unwilling to stand with him when he was bullied.

“Having someone on your side is always helpful, and feeling alone is the worst,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chris Garofolo can be reached at 594-6465, or @Telegraph_Chris.