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K-12 student speech bill meets mixed emotions


By Mark Keierleber





While HB 1169 has been backed primarily by education special-interest lobbyists, the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development heard opposition from a variety of entities, including the Indiana State Bar Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Hoosier State Press Association.

“It’s something they tried to sneak through, and they successfully sneaked it halfway through, but the public has awakened, and they don’t want this,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

However, local education administrators believe the bill would be beneficial to school officials and students alike.

Authored by Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, HB 1169 is a minor adjustment to current law with the potential to create significant change. Currently, a student can be suspended or expelled if he or she engages in illegal activity off campus, such as selling drugs. But Koch’s amendment removes the word “illegal” from current law, allowing school administrators to punish students for speech that would “interfere” with the school’s educational function.

This adjustment, Koch said, would allow schools to target cheating and cyber bullying.

LoMonte said he views the situation differently.

“The only justification given at yesterday’s hearing was that schools want to be able to punish a student if he says something insulting to a principal or superintendant at the grocery store on a Saturday,” LoMonte said. “The idea that government officials get to use their government authority to punish people who criticize them is just un-American.”

Bloomington’s Jackson Creek Middle School Principal David Pillar said the school is currently empty-handed when targeting cyber bullying.

“It’s a real challenge because we spend a lot of time dealing with Facebook bullying,” Pillar said. “The thing we face is, we can’t control the Internet, we can’t control texting and cell phone plan policies and things like that, and I’ve found that parents want us to be involved more than we can be when their children are victims.”

Pillar said administrators often pass bullying cases to the Bloomington Police
Department.

“If texts are exchanged between two kids who are in their homes at seven or eight o’clock at night, there isn’t a whole lot we can do,” Pillar said.

Pillar said HB 1169 would allow school officials to become more involved in preventing threats to and from students.

“We do need to have some authority to deal with the people who are creating an unsafe learning environment for those kids and scaring those kids basically into not coming to school,” Pillar said.

But LoMonte said he worries the authority given under HB 1169 would be abused. Because cyber bullying does not appear in the legislation, and because it is not an amendment to the state’s already existing bullying law, he said he believes the bill is being pushed for public relations purposes.

“It really is the ‘Principal in your Bedroom’ bill,” LoMonte said, referring to the title of his most recent blog post on the SPLC website. “There’s no doubt you’re going to have principals trolling people’s blogs and Facebook pages, looking for insults so they can suspend them. We know, because of how badly principals abuse their authority over on-campus speech, they use their authority to protect their own public relations images, and they’re going to do that with students’ blogs and off-campus speech if they let them.”

Additional problems arise, LoMonte said, with the education system’s current punishment strategies.

African-Americans, he said, are disproportionately singled out for suspension or
expulsion.

If additional students are suspended or expelled for off-campus speech, he continued, more African-American students will find themselves limited in their educational advancement.

“I don’t know how many colleges are going to be willing to take a chance on somebody who has been expelled from their high school,” LoMonte said. “If you’re going to give administrators a vastly expanded authority, they’re going to have to give students vastly expanded due process rights so they can clear their names.”

While Pillar said he supports the bill, he has not yet determined a plan of action if the bill is passed. However, he does not anticipate any significant policy changes.

Similar to situations under current law, Pillar said he will continue to recommend that parents contact the police if their child receives a threat.

Parents must also be willing to skim their child’s phone or Facebook page, he said.

“I couldn’t tell you how we’re going to enforce that or how we’re going to use that until circumstances arise where we’re faced with it,” Pillar said.

The Senate Committee on Education and Career Development plans to review potential amendments to the bill this week.

By the time HB 1169 makes it out of the Senate, LoMonte said, he anticipates the language will appear completely different. If significant amendments are not made, LoMonte said he believes the bill will be immediately challenged as unconstitutional.

“If the school lobbyists succeed in Indiana, they are going to try to do this in every state,” LoMonte said. “That’s why it’s important for the public to stop them in Indiana so that this terrible idea doesn’t become contagious.”

There's a bill that could limit student free speech in Indiana K-12 schools and another that will encourage students to take their drunk friends to the hospital. We give you the low-down on both.

Mary Kenney and Michael Auslen

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