Recently, six white high school seniors were suspended by their high school for posing for a picture with shirts that spell the N-word and then posting that picture to the social media service Snapchat, which makes each picture available for 24 hours after posting. This photo was available for much longer. Shortly after the picture was posted, it went viral. News media from across the country, including national outlets like ESPN, ran the story, and the picture is now ubiquitous.
The students were ultimately suspended for 10 days by their high school, but the educational repercussions of this photo can and will extend beyond those 10 days.
Almost three-quarters of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information (often through questions on the Common Application). And of those, 89% report that they use that information in making admissions decisions. But strikingly, only 25% have formal, written policies on how to use that information. Thus, a high school suspension may not just be a minor blip on your record; instead, admissions offices at most colleges and universities are looking at your record and it may influence their admissions decision.
Moreover, colleges and universities have revoked or rescinded academic and athletic scholarship offers because of high school disciplinary problems.
This is why it is essential that students be proactive to protect their rights. The United States Supreme has said that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. [Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 507 (1969).] That means that public schools must give students due process of law before taking adverse action against the student. And although the First Amendment would probably not protect the speech of the above high schoolers, it does not allow a public school to censure all expressive speech without substantial justification.
But, interactions on social media can raise additional complications. The law is not clear on whether public schools can punish students for what they say and post to their social media accounts outside of school. Last year, for example, 11 high school students in Texas were suspended for an online post that contained a gay slur. Two of the students were suspended for vandalizing an anti-bullying poster and posting the image on the social media website with a caption that included a gay slur. The other 9 students were suspended for “liking” the picture.
Thus, even things students say and do outside of school may have repercussions within the school. Schools are monitoring social media, especially in the context of potentially discriminatory speech or bullying, and they are willing to punish students for their behavior on social media, which is why it is essential that students have someone on their side, fighting for their rights.
Any high school disciplinary trouble could impact a student’s college career. The future is too important to leave solely in the hands of school administrators. An education law attorney can ultimately help guide students through the disciplinary process and ensure that their constitutional rights are protected.
A special thanks to Nicholas Oleski for his help writing this post and Joyce Blakely for the inspiration.