Several school districts in Illinois have started telling parents that teachers and other staff may request students to hand over their passwords for social media profiles if school officials suspect a student has violated a disciplinary rule.
School officials began distributing letters earlier this month to parents after the state’s anti-bullying law was expanded to include cyberbullying. The law requires schools to have a policy in place to deal with bullying, including requiring school officials to investigate reported instances of bullying and offering information to victims about counseling services and options for redress.
While the law does not specifically mention social media passwords, a separate statute passed last year opened the door for school officials to request passwords from students. Under that law, officials must notify the parents of K-12 students of their intention to request social media passwords from students in order to investigate cases of potential violations of the district’s disciplinary code.
Neither law specifically states that students or parents must turn over their social media passwords pursuant to the law, though district officials have apparently interpreted otherwise.
“If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords,” superintendent Leigh Lewis told Motherboard’s Jason Koebler. “If [students or parents] didn’t turn over the password, we would call our district attorneys because they would be in violation of the law.”
Lewis said this would only apply in certain circumstances, and that school staffers would “look at the facts and see what we’re dealing with before we make the decision.”
“Anytime a school is trying to control students’ behavior outside school, it’s a serious threat to their privacy and to their futures,” Kade Crockford, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union told Motherboard.
Crockford suggested the legislation may be in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial federal anti-hacking statue that has been interpreted to make a criminal offense out of violating a website’s terms of service. Several social media websites including Facebook and Twitter make it a violation under their terms of service to share passwords to their platforms with “unauthorized users.”
Technology and privacy groups have often criticized the CFAA’s broad interpretation of what constitutes a “computer crime,” but in this case the ACLU appears to be using that same interpretation to the advantage of advocates.
“Here we may be having students who are being forced to violate federal law to comply with a state law,” Crockford said.
Advocates are worried that the policy could open the door for other requirements that would force students to hand over other personal information. Some parents appear equally concerned.
“It’s one thing for me to take my child’s social media account in there and open it up for a teacher to look at it … but to have to hand over your password and personal information to your accounts to your school is just unacceptable to me,” parent Sara Bozarth told KTVI-TV.
But school officials say they have no choice: The state’s school code requires officials to have a plan in place to thoroughly investigate allegations of bullying at school, and school staffers must follow through on reports of bullying when they are made.
“If there’s a disruption to school, if there are threats or discrimination of any type that fall under bullying and harassment policies we have, we have to follow through and investigate,” Lewis said, adding that — so far — her district has not requested passwords from any students.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.