By Terry Dean
Gov. Pat Quinn signed new legislation earlier this month prohibiting school districts from gaining access to students' social media passwords without just cause.
If a school has reason to believe a discipline policy or rule has been violated, then it can require a student to hand over a password. At Oak Park and River Forest High School, that's rarely the case because parents are already on top of their kid's social media activity, according to Principal Nathaniel Rouse.
"Majority of the time that we're doing our due diligence and calling them to find out about bullying, they're already on Facebook and doing what they need to do to assist us," he said. "But let's say that something does happen in the social media world where that creates a disturbance for us; we investigate and we bring those students in to try and assess that information so we can make sure our kids are safe."
Schools navigating cyberspace concerning student behavior is not new. And it's not all bad in the social media world. At OPRF, students and parents have used social media to highlight an issue or cause directly involving the school.
Last year, some students and parents took to Facebook to protest teacher layoffs at OPRF. Earlier this year, an anonymous person setup a Facebook page for students to compliment each other. But social media remains a frequent arena for bullying and other negative activities.
Parents, Rouse notes, are extremely helpful in cracking down on some of that behavior.
"I give the parents credit. When we're calling and saying there's an issue, they're on it. They're taking down things and directing their children to take down things," he said. "If there's an issue or concern about something buzzing out there, the first people we call are the parents. They're not wanting that behavior either because they get that that's out there in cyberspace."
Sometimes, what happens in cyberspace can spill over into the building, says Randy Braverman, OPRF's director of security.
"The reason why there's a rise in fights is what's out there in social media. Sometimes it's someone saying, 'I don't like you' on social media and then all of sudden they come to school and say, 'Hey, I saw what you said,' and then there's an argument, so social media has a big part of that," Braverman said.
According to discipline data for fall 2012, three incidents that semester were connected to cyber, or electronic, bullying. There were also 21 incidents of fighting that semester, but the data doesn't indicate if social media was involved. Rouse noted that with 3,200 students, the level of fighting could be far worse.
Braverman said the school tries to de-escalate arguments before they turn into fights. In the cafeterias, for instance, students are required to sit in their seats. Braverman says that allows security staff to better monitor the room. If something starts bubbling up between students, Braverman said staff immediately goes and checks it out.
The school's upgraded camera system from two years ago also included devices to monitor the two lunchrooms.
Rouse said students and parents are good at alerting the school about any potential problems involving students. The school this year will also set up a "tip line" — actually an anonymous email — for parents and students to alert the school.
"We call it doing the right thing," Rouse said. "It's not something where we're telling on someone. We have kids here who love their school, and they don't want to see their friends into things that they shouldn't be in. So when they have the opportunity, they come and tell us."
Braverman this summer also had an official from the Illinois Attorney General's Office come to OPRF to train staff and parents about cyber-bullying and sexting.