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I am the IT manager of a high school. I setup an online conference system during the height of the pandemic so that classes could be conducted virtually. We still sometimes switch to virtual classes when a higher-than-normal number of students get infected with COVID-19 or the flu.

I was asked to provide server logs of two studnets during one virtual class day that took place a few weeks back. From what I heard, the two were dating at the time and exchanged inappropriate material such as lewd text and porn. Neither of them had any issues with it then but they had broken up and now the girl has changed her mind and accused the boy of sexual assault.

I did not find any dms nor public posts they shared on the school server and reported as such. Reportedly, the boy defended himself claiming that the exchange was made off-campus and thus the school has no authority to punish him.

As far as I know the relevant faculty in the school are yet to issue a verdict. While the case did take place during a school session, they were physically off-campus and they used means of communications other than the official one that the school uses. It feels very tricky to me.

Can the school punish one or both students for their conduct? If so, would they stand a chance of challenging the ruling in court based on how the Supreme Court's previous ruling?

Would the punishment(s) and/or their chances of a successful appeal following one vary significantly had it been an offline school day or had I found offending logs in the school server?

Noting that this happened in Texas in case state jurisdiction matters.

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    Ask your School's legal counsel, not randos on the internet.
    – Trish
    Aug 6, 2023 at 20:09

2 Answers 2

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Fortunately, this is a request for general analysis of the law, and not a request for specific advice. Pursuant to Mahoney v. BL, this kind of case is in the undecided middle. Schools may have an interest that justifies regulating speech: but they cannot completely regulate the speech of students. In Mahoney, the attempt was to control completely out-of-school speech.

The scenario that you describe walls within the ambit of a proper school concern, namely "disruption of class", which would include "not paying attention in class". In Mahoney, physical location was not really relevant. The case you describe is exactly like in-class speech, except that the parties were not physically in a classroom, and the communication channel was not school-controlled. What you describe is analogous to students texting each other in class, using their own phones (not school property). The holding does point to valid school interests such as

serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities

The accusations implicate a number of these legitimate concerns of schools, so it is most likely that a punishment would be upheld.

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  • So the key point is that the students were supposed to pay attention to class and instead communicated with each other through some different channel. The content of the communication is only secondary?
    – quarague
    Aug 7, 2023 at 9:04
  • I would say that in this instance, the communication occurred over a third party system and the fact it was not seen occurring at the time of incident would not rise to the level of being a valid school interest. Texting on personally owned phones in a physical classroom is not analogous as the behavior can be seen in the moment by other observers who can either act in the moment or report the action at the later time. The School Resource Officer is not needed to verify the teacher or teacher's pet seeing the disruption and acting on that information.
    – hszmv
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:51
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Can the school punish one or both students for their conduct?

I don't know. Can they?

May the school punish one or both students for their conduct?

Sorry, couldn't resist a little humor. They are certainly able to discipline to the extend they can. As this is not a court system so the burden of proof need not be as strong as if this was a criminal case. The best course of action for the school will likely to refer the accusation of a crime to the police who are better equipped to investigate and determine if any criminal action occurred. As for what will happen while the criminal investigation is being made.

If so, would they stand a chance of challenging the ruling in court based on how the Supreme Court's previous ruling?

Based on your search? Likely. Whatever communication made was made between the two young ex-lovers, the school could find no evidence of it traveling through school resources so your search will not be the at issue element of any challenge, and rather it will be the decision occurring in the absence of evidence or the basis that evidence gathered was not in school custody and could be altered by one party that provided their own copy of the transcripts. Either way, parties can file sue for any reason and it's up to the courts if the reason is valid before discovery and trial.

Would the punishment(s) and/or their chances of a successful appeal following one vary significantly had it been an offline school day or had I found offending logs in the school server?

Likely different, as I am not entirely convinced that the disruption of the classroom occurred sufficient by the involved parties to cause a distraction to an uninvolved third party. As such, the mere fact that they were texting or passing notes (like the good ol' days) would be more likely to disrupt as third party students would be involved. That it was not done in a public way that was visible to the class writ large or recorded in the logs suggests the distraction did not occur, as no one was aware of the action at the time it happened. Had this occured in a physical classroom, the teacher and remaining students would be able to recall the disruption occurring to some degree and not rely on the School Resource Officer to check the security cameras to confirm that it took place (That isn't to say they won't be asked to pull the records, but that they would not be needed to prove or disprove the alleged accusation as a disruption.). The teacher would have grabbed the passed note, or noticed the cellphones and engaged in immediate disciple actions OR the students would recall Kevin asking them to pass a note to Winnie Cooper or watching Kevin and Winnie texting with their phones under their desks to avoid getting noticed.

And obviously, had the logs been found to support the interaction took place (whether it was criminal or not) while using school resources, then it is likely that the disruption part of the law does come into play.). At either rate, most computer systems that have public use accounts such as school computers will have a disclaimer that use of the resource by the user consents to monitoring of all activity while using the device or service, which means that there is an argument that they waved their rights against a search and seizure of the electronic traffic on the school's network, systems, hardware, and other such IT infrastructure the moment they put in their username/password and hit enter, and that such communications are then subject to the rules of the IT policy of the school and they can be disciplined for misuse of school property if it rises to that level. If there was evidence of a crime, copies of those transcripts would be useful in getting warrants to have service providers used turn over any transcripts to the investigation.

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