New law allows Illinois schools access to students’ social media passwords

Photo of Tom HockmanDarrell Hoemann
Champaign Unit 4 school district attorney Tom Hockman with a screen of some of the district's digital media policies in his office in Champaign on Wednesday, April 1, 2015.

Teenage cyberbullies across Illinois might want to think twice before posting anything mean or reckless on social media ever again.

Illinois public school administrators now have the authority to demand a student’s social media account password if the school suspects the student of violating a disciplinary rule or policy, thanks to a new law implemented earlier this year.

The law, known as Public Act 098-0129, states that schools may demand a password if the institution has a reasonable cause to suspect a student violated disciplinary rules. Instances of disciplinary violations could include cyberbullying or online threats, regardless of if the student used school technology or not.

The law and others like it in other states have run into controversy, however, because privacy advocates say the law is an unnecessary violation of privacy.

Even some national organizations are saying the power given to school administration leads to breaches in constitutional rights and, locally, some educators worry that the law crosses the line.

Jessica Robbins, a teacher at Unity West Elementary in Tolono, Illinois, and mother of seven, said by taking a student’s password, it opens up a “slippery slope” to violating the student’s Fifth Amendment rights, and parents should be first to do the disciplining.

In a 2012 report for the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Amy Vorenberg, Professor of Law and Director of JD Legal Writing at the University of New Hampshire, argues that examining a student’s subjective view of what is private — which could include cell phones that store social media information — is unconstitutional.

“Absent urgent safety concerns, school policies that allow warrantless searches of cell phones violate the Fourth Amendment privacy interests of students,” Vorenberg said in her report.

Illinois is one of at least 22 states that have passed or have pending social media access laws this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, Hawaii, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Rhode Island all passed laws last year that prohibit administration to access students’ social media information without legal warrants — and some Illinois parents would prefer the latter.

The Champaign Unit 4 District School Board of Education met in February to discuss new changes to the bullying policies in district schools, including the implementation of this new law. Thomas Lockman, attorney for the district, hopes it won’t be necessary.

“We have not had to demand a password, nor have we put anything in place yet specifically to the law because what we have found is that if something is going on, we don’t need to access that student’s password,” Lockman said. “We can get proof from a public profile, or other students provide that information.”

The goal of this new bill is to avoid law enforcement getting involved with student issues. La Shawn Ford, 8th District State Representative and sponsor of the new law, said keeping student issues on a local level is better for both the school and for the students. Ford assured that parents will always be notified in these situations.

“We want to do everything we can to keep [situations] from becoming criminal and for the schools to have the ability and authority to handle it,” Ford said.

Most schools already have some sort of cyberbullying and social media guidelines in their disciplinary policies. Stephanie Eckels, principal of Stratton Academy of the Arts in Champaign, said although the school’s previous policy didn’t allow administration to demand a password, it still gave them some authority when dealing with technology and social media cases. Eckels said in the five years she has been principal at Stratton, there has only been one case of cyberbullying, which was brought to her attention by parents.

“We definitely do everything we can to prevent [social media issues],” Eckels said. “I know that older students can be downright mean, and I like the fact that with this new law there is recourse. I’d be real curious as to how [the new law] plays out.”

Even though no passwords have been demanded yet, some students are already seeing this new law as a violation of privacy rights rather than useful tools for social media issues. Aidan Healy, senior at Champaign Central High School, said cyberbullying issues should be confronted, but if a user has an account set to private, the information he or she posts should remain private.

“If a student has their account set to public so that anyone can see, they should expect to face consequences for what they post,” Healy said. “I think forcing students to give their passwords defeats the purpose of all privacy settings that the student set up, and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Other students don’t think handing over a password will help a social media situation at all. Rachael Courtney, junior at Champaign Central High School, said in cases of cyberbullying, the bully will just find another way or medium to put down another student once a password is taken.

“The comment will already be made, the victim has already been put down and letting the school have passwords will just make it a bigger deal, bringing more attention to the students,” Courtney said. “Having legal consequences is a good step, but it will just scare students into moving their actions somewhere else, which isn’t solving the problem.”

“As a parent, I should be notified of any situation right away and I should have the opportunity to be a parent before the school steps in,” Robbins said. “After, administrators should have access via an officer, who should have to obtain it through a warrant.”

Ginny McDade, energy consultant at Kona Energy and mother of a current Champaign Central High School senior, said she doesn’t understand how taking a student’s password would help the situation, since most profiles are usually public. McDade said parents should be stepping in and stopping social media issues.

“It’s more of what the kid perceives as being OK to do and how to treat somebody,” McDade said. “If I saw one of my kids doing that, he wouldn’t have a phone.”

For now, Champaign Unit 4 District schools will implement this new law into a new social media and bullying policy, but will try to avoid demanding passwords in future disciplinary cases.

“It’s good for us as a school district to have the tools to address bullying as it may arise,” Lockman said. “Fortunately, we haven’t had much use for this legislation, but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t in the future, and it could be helpful.”

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