DECATUR, Ala. — The electronic devices that give students instant access to the world for educational purposes are also their conduit to social media, and that presents a host of problems for school administrators.
Every school district in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties has dealt with discipline issues that started on social media.
Unless prompted by a threat, however, school leaders said they do not monitor what students do on social media when they are away from school.
Despite the growing challenges that devices such as smartphones and tablets present, administrators said they do not want to turn back advances in technology.
"I'm sure students made threats on paper and pencils when they first came into schools, but we didn't ban paper and pencils," Hartselle City Schools Superintendent Vic Wilson said.
The issue of social media and how far school districts should go is garnering national attention because of a monitoring program Huntsville City Schools started in 2013.
The district paid a former FBI agent $157,000 to operate SAFe, or Students Against Fear, a monitoring program that targeted 600 of the system's 24,000 students and resulted in expulsion of 14 students.
Huntsville said it started the program after receiving a tip from the National Security Agency involving a threat against a teacher. The NSA said it has no record of contact with school officials.
Regardless of what led Huntsville to start the program, the American Civil Liberties Union views what students post on social media sites as free speech that shouldn't lead to punishment at school.
"The ACLU is concerned about the systemic monitoring of student speech across the country," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama.
The courts, however, have yet to clear up the issue.
In 2011, a court in Indiana ruled that school officials violated a student's free speech rights when two girls were suspended from extracurricular activities for pictures they posted online.
But two years later, a federal appeals court backed a school board in Nevada that suspended a high school student for allegedly threatening his classmates on Myspace.
Decatur City Schools has invested millions in technology and provides all of its middle school students with Internet-accessible computers. But the district does not have a monitoring device "or the time to monitor what students are doing on social media," DCS operations and safety supervisor Dwight Satterfield said.
Satterfield said the only time the district looks at what a student is posting online is when "an open source notifies us about threats, suicides and stuff like that."
This situation came up about a year ago when two students had a disagreement about a female student. One of the students threatened to "take care" of another student at school. The district intervened and expelled the student making threats.
"It was a serious threat," Satterfield said.
The process of how DCS handles social media threats played out recently when the parent of a middle school student reported what she thought was a threat against her son.
Satterfield said the student received an image of a male apparently making gang signs and wearing a cap that read: "Fight the dead, fear the living."
He said they determined the person sending the image was not associated with Decatur City Schools.
"We couldn't do anything," Satterfield said.
Lawrence County school officials faced a situation in March when a middle school student posted a bomb threat using Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows anonymous comments to users within a 10-mile radius.
The system identified the student who posted the threat and took disciplinary action against him.
Hartselle City had its own issue with Yik Yak when someone posted comments about a student. The district did not identify who made the comments, but sent an alert to parents.
Decatur-area school districts have filters that block social media sites through their wireless network. Students, however, can get around this by using their own devices and data plans.
This is especially true for middle and high students because public systems in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties have Bring Young Own Device programs.
Wilson said most students with electronic devices use their own network "and it's very difficult for us to control what sites they go to."
Even with these challenges, Hartselle Junior High Principal Robbie Smith opposes beating back technology.
"This is the world of our children, and we have to teach them to be responsible," she said.
Smith has dealt with the perils of social media in two school districts.
While she was at Discovery Middle School in Madison, several students were suspected of bullying a classmate on Twitter. Smith said students told them about the threats, which didn't identify a student by name.
"When we called the students in posting the information, they denied it was directed at a student, and we had no way of proving it," Smith said.
She encountered a similar situation in Hartselle last year when students were "gossiping" about a classmate on Yik Yak.
In response to the incident, School Resource Officer Michael Hudson held a workshop for parents entitled "Social Media and Sexting."
"Parents have to stay on top of what their children are doing, and they have to model good behavior," Smith said. "It's a challenge because kids are smart enough to hide inappropriate apps. But we have to stay involved and continue to educate them."
Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml