On top of a principal’s existing duties, navigating complex legal issues can be both tricky and burdensome.
Last week, one Queensland principal suspended 22 students who shared naked images of other students within their school. The same week, more than 2,000 students were exposed through an inappropriate website targeting 71 schools.
The Educator spoke to Dan Brush, national leader of the intellectual property & ICT team at Colin Biggers and Paisley Lawyers to see how principals should approach the misuse of social media from a legal perspective.
Brush shared some important tips for principals to keep in mind when facing issues such as students and staff accessing inappropriate websites, abusing one another through social media platforms and ‘sexting’.
The role of schools in monitoring student behaviour
Brush said that principals must have clear and consistent terms of service regarding the use of the Internet on school grounds. He said
“There are separate standards for the two types of Internet sites in schools – one that is hosted by the school, and one that is sponsored by the school, such as a Facebook page,” Brush said.
“Schools should have terms of service for these sites, because by law, they have a role to monitor the activities of minors – and these terms, which guide what kind of communication is or is not acceptable, need to be made clear.”
Brush said that if these terms are clear, the school has a responsibility to enforce them consistently. He added that principals must ensure their school doesn’t have complicated or burdensome terms of service, because this will make their enforcement an issue.
Regulating third-party websites
Brush pointed out that a different standard applies to third-party websites or forums, such as Yahoo or Twitter – and this is where it can get complicated.
“The role of the school to monitor student behaviour or communication through these forums is nil, unless it has another policy which states that students cannot engage in the online abuse of other students,” he said.
While schools are becoming more aware of these issues due to recent reports in the media, Brush said they are floundering with regards to what their role is, what they have to do and how to allocate appropriate resources to address the issues.
“There needs to be a larger conversation around these issues so principals can be more aware of the consequences, and how to avoid them,” he said.
When do inappropriate social media posts enter the territory of child pornography?
Brush said the definition of pornography was a legal one and that schools should not be in the position of arguing what is or is not pornography. However, he added that schools’ behaviour codes apply generally and specifically to online behaviour as to what is acceptable behaviour by school staff and students.
“Those terms should be easily understood and consistently enforced, but there are different opinions of what pornography is. There are a whole range of things that some reasonable people might consider to be art or expression rather than pornography. It’s all situational,” he said.
Brush added that schools should focus on establishing what is – and what is not – acceptable behaviour for their staff and students.
“Most schools don’t have online behaviour codes, and this is something schools should consider formulating,” he said.
How should principals deal legally with ‘sexting’ between students?
Brush said schools can do little to prohibit sexting outside the school’s gates, but can develop guidelines around staff and student conduct when using smart phones on school grounds.
“Is the sexting between staff members or students? This might be something schools can regulate, but if it’s between someone in their school and a third party, this can be very difficult to regulate, even if they know about it,” he said.
“Law is something that parents and students are going to be concerned about, so schools really need to rise to the challenge.
“There has been enough bad press about this issue, and it’s perhaps incumbent on the schools to anticipate these problems and have a solution ready.
Brush will be speaking at the Education Law Masterclass, which will be held 27 October at the Mercure Hotel in Sydney.