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Facebook lawsuit settled: Minnewaska Area agrees to update student privacy policies to address electronic media

WILLMAR — A lawsuit that alleged a former Minnewaska Area student’s free speech and privacy rights were violated has been settled.

The lawsuit filed in 2012 alleged that Riley Stratton was punished unfairly for comments posted to her Facebook page — with detention and later in-school suspension — and that she was forced to turn over passwords to her Facebook and email accounts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota announced Tuesday that the school district located in Pope County in west central Minnesota agreed to a $70,000 settlement in the case, and the district agreed to changes in its policies regarding student privacy.

 “It was so embarrassing and hard on me to go through, but I hope that schools all over see what happened and don’t punish other students the way I was punished,” Stratton said in a news release from the ACLU.

As part of the settlement, changes to Minnewaska Area School District policies and the student handbook will address when electronic communication and electronic records may be searched — which was not addressed in the past — and the district will conduct training on the changes.

For example, one update to the policy states that a search of electronic records or electronic communication, accounts or passwords created by students is permissible only when there is reasonable suspicion of uncovering a violation of school rules, and the search must be “reasonable in its scope and intrusiveness.”  

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, stated in a news release that the ACLU hopes “this sends a clear message to other schools that it is bad policy to police students’ behavior on social media. There may be times when it is appropriate for schools to intervene, but only in extreme circumstances where there are true threats or safety risks.”

The Minnewaska Area School District did not admit any fault, and the agreed upon policy changes are “nothing oppressive from our standpoint,” said Superintendent Greg Schmidt in a telephone interview Tuesday.

He said the settlement was reached in October, and court documents finalized more recently.  

Schmidt said his advice to staff — and he will be addressing the matter in-depth at training this fall — is to be sure that any concerns that may arise about a student are shared with a principal or social worker.

“Nobody on our staff, as far as I know anyway, is out there checking kids’ Facebook accounts to see what they’re saying about school. I hope we have a better use of our time.”

Students need to understand, however, that what they post on social media may be visible to hundreds of other people, including other students. And in this case, Schmidt said, a student was concerned about Stratton’s post and reported it.

The matter began with a Facebook post by Stratton about a paraprofessional staff member. Schmidt said he was not employed by the district at that time, but he characterized the post as “uncomplimentary” and said staff — after the post was reported to them by another student — did speak to Stratton about being responsible on Facebook and about how such comments can be harmful.

The ACLU in its description of the case on its web site said Stratton, while at home on her own computer, posted about her dislike of the staff member and that she was punished with detention and forced to write an apology to the staff member.

Later, Stratton complained on Facebook about someone reporting her to the school. Schmidt said that post was perceived as possibly threatening to the other student who had reported the initial concern.

Stratton was given an in-school suspension and was prohibited from attending a school field trip, according to the ACLU.

According to the news release from the ACLU, Stratton also was forced to turn over passwords, and her Facebook page was searched because she allegedly had an online conversation about sex, with a boy, while at home.

Schmidt said he did not know anything about a conversation about sex.

Stratton has not attended Minnewaska Area since the events.

“We’re glad it’s over and we wish the family well, wherever they may be,” Schmidt said.

The Minnewaska Area consolidated district was formed in 1993 from three Pope County districts: Glenwood/Lowry, Starbuck and Villard. District offices are located between Glenwood and Starbuck.

Susan Lunneborg
Susan Lunneborg is news editor of the West Central Tribune. She joined the staff in Willmar in 1999 and has been a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years. She can be reached directly at the email linked here, but for the most timely response, please send news releases to the Tribune's general news email:
(320) 235-1150