A Minnesota school district has agreed to pay a $70,000 settlement from a lawsuit which claimed school officials violated a student's constitutional rights by viewing her Facebook and email accounts without permission.
School officials searched Riley Stratton's email and Facebook accounts after hearing reports that the student posted about a mean teacher's aide and engaged in a sexual chat with a male classmate, even though she was at home and not using school computers.
After the ACLU took up the case and filed a lawsuit in 2012, the Minnewaska, Minn., School District settled Stratton’s lawsuit and agreed to change its policies.
The ACLU also said administrators viewed her online conversations between the then-Minnewaska Area Middle School sixth-grader and a boy because of a complaint the two were using computers to talk about sex.
A parent complained about the Facebook chat, and the school called Riley in and demanded her password.
“I was in tears,” Riley told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday. “I was embarrassed when they made me give over my password.”
"It was believed the parent had given permission to look at her cellphone," Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Schmidt said Tuesday. Schmidt said the district did not have a consent form signed by the parent. That is now a policy requirement, he said.
Wallace Hilke, an ACLU attorney who helped lead Riley's case, told the Star-Tribune that students' use of social media is not the school's business, unless it involves cyber-bullying or poses a substantial threat to school activities.
"They punished her for doing exactly what kids have done for 100 years, complaining to her friends about teachers and administrators," Hilke said. "She wasn’t spreading lies or inciting them to engage in bad behavior; she was just expressing her personal feelings."
Riley's mother, Sandra Stratton, said that she wasn't informed when officials “interrogated” her daughter.
"They never once told me they were going to bring her into the room and demand her Facebook password," Sandra said. "I’m hoping schools kind of leave these things alone so parents can punish their own kids for things that happen off school grounds."
Now that the case is over, Riley is happy that the school has changed its rules. She said the experience was embarrassing and hard to go through, she fell behind in school while the lawsuit was going on, but she feels that schools elsewhere will hear about the case and will not punish other students the way she was disciplined.
The $70,000 settlement will be divided between the Strattons, for damages, and the ACLU of Minnesota.