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Can Schools Punish Students for Things That Happen Off-Campus?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jul 01, 2020 | 0 Comments

In years past, high school students could expect to get in trouble for breaking rules while they were on school grounds. Smoking, fighting, bullying, and other behaviors could definitely lead to a suspension or expulsion if they happened on campus. Likewise, a student who stood in the hall outside of math class and yelled something objectionable could expect to be walked straight down to the principal's office to face the music.

But if students did any of those things off-campus, disciplining them was their parents' problem—not the school's.

Not so anymore.

Officials in the Pasco County school district, just outside of Tampa, Fla., recently asked the school board there to approve a change to the student code of conduct that would allow schools to punish student-athletes for behaviors they engage in online, while off school property, and outside of school activities if the students were wearing the school's athletic uniforms at the time.

The proposed policy says that if a student-athlete violates the school district's digital citizenship rules while wearing the school's athletic uniforms, he or she can be punished by the coach and by school leaders. School officials say the change is necessary to control bullying and harassing behavior on popular social media sites such as TikTok.

Constitutional law experts, however, are calling foul, saying that the proposed changes could violate students' First Amendment Rights. If a student posted a video on TikTok with inappropriate language, the school would not have the authority to punish the student, and doing so would be a clear violation of the student's rights.

The school district officials argue, however, that when the student is wearing the school's uniform, the student is representing the school and therefore should be subject to punishment.

Efforts like the one in Pasco County to redefine when students have free speech and when they don't echo the expansion of Title IX in ways that promise to be confusing for all involved.

Nationally, Title IX is being steadily expanded to cover a wide range of student behaviors, just as how this latest step by the Pasco County School Board represents yet another muddying of the waters. It's difficult for students, parents, teachers, and administrators to know what the boundaries are on student behavior and allowable restrictions and punishments.

Title IX was initially passed almost 50 years ago to prevent gender discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding. For decades, the law was used to create opportunities for girls and women in educational settings and to equalize funding for girls' and boys' sports. Since 2011, however, Title IX has been used in a growing number of cases to address issues such as sexual assault and sexual harassment. The changes, while welcomed by advocates, have created a very murky environment in which words like “consent” become increasingly vague.

If you've got questions about your student's Freedom of Speech rights, Title IX, or any other issues involving students and the law, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686, and let us help you find answers.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients nationwide. Mr. Lento represents students and others in disciplinary cases and other proceedings at colleges and universities across the United States. Mr. Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand colleges and universities across the United States, and when necessary, he has sought justice on behalf of clients in courts across the nation. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide, and he can help you or your student address school-related issues and concerns anywhere in the United States.

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