I often get questioned about a relatively new area in the law, which is, “Can a school punish a child for something that the child did off campus.” It comes up a lot nowadays with social media where you have kids saying things on Facebook or other social media sites that upsets people back at the school and the school wants to impose discipline. The answer to the question is, “Yes and no. It depends;” a lawyer type answer, right?
If the conduct off campus causes a substantial disruption back at the school, then the school can discipline. If not, the school cannot discipline. For example, if a child goes on Facebook and makes comments about the principal that the principal finds to be derogatory and upsetting, that is not, by itself, a substantial disruption back at the school; his being upset. However, if enough parents and other students see the comment and they start calling the school and they start some petition, perhaps, against the principal because they believe the allegation made by the child, now we may have a situation where there has been a substantial disruption at the school and the child can be punished.
Another area where that comes up a lot is in the area of one student bullying another student. That is generally considered a substantial disruption back at the school because now you have a student for whom the school is responsible to protect who may be upset, may be missing classes, may be afraid to come to school, is now having problems in the school, and that can be considered a substantial disruption. Absent that substantial disruption however, children are free to behave as they please outside of school. It doesn’t mean that the school has a right to impose their own discipline. They have a right to free speech and they have a right to free association and the schools are not entitled to impose punishments.
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