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Frank Gray

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Expelled for tweet, but was it right?


Last October, Garrett High School senior Austin Carroll got into a rub with school officials after he used his school-issued computer to post an online comment via Twitter that contained obscenities.

Carroll was given an in-school suspension and, according to his mother, quickly learned that he should use the school-issued laptop strictly for homework assignments.

Meanwhile, Carroll continued to get into almost silly conflicts. He wore a kilt to school one day but was ordered by the principal to change. His mother, Pam Smith, said she argued that the kilt was no more of a distraction than girls with short skirts or low-cut tops. Later, the superintendent agreed that Carroll would be permitted to wear a kilt on Irish holidays.

This month, Carroll’s mother was called to the school to discuss her son’s attendance. Carroll, she said, suffers from migraines and other health issues and does miss school often.

At the meeting, though, the topic wasn’t attendance but Carroll’s Twitter posts. School officials, she said, had print-outs of some tweets that contained more obscenities. School officials wanted to expel Carroll.

Smith said she objected. The tweets had been sent from his home computer at 2:30 a.m. While she doesn’t approve of the obscene language and said she confronted him, what he does on his home computer in the middle of the night is his business.

But school officials said the tweets had the school’s IP address. She said she was told that if Carroll had his school laptop running, it would appear the tweet came from the school computer.

From here, the argument morphs into a bunch of technological points that I don’t understand and that Smith didn’t understand. In the end, the school contended the obscenity-laced tweets were sent on a school-owned device, and Carroll was expelled.

He waived an expulsion hearing. He will be allowed to complete his classwork in an alternative school and graduate, receiving a diploma.

Smith, though, feels her son was targeted because of his earlier run-ins with school officials.

“They need to go on every student and staff member’s computer and review them,” Smith said. “They’ll find plenty of stuff.”

Smith said other students have sent tweets and put posts on Internet pages that were easily as outrageous as what her son posted.

I spoke to the superintendent, Dennis Stockdale, who said he couldn’t comment on any individual student case but said the school has never disciplined and will not discipline students for anything they tweet or put online using their own computer, on their own time, and outside the school’s network.

Not having seen any of Carroll’s fellow students’ tweets, I can’t weigh in one way or the other on that specific claim.

But there is no question, young people in particular seem to have no limits on what they are willing to post online, tweet or send via text message using a cellphone.

“It’s a discussion we need to start having,” Stockdale said. “What we have to do is educate kids and ask parents to partner with us to educate students on what is appropriate.”

Personally, I believe leveling penalties that could do serious damage to a student’s future over an obscene tweet is a mistake. Perhaps loss of a school-provided computer and access to a school-provided network is a better solution.

Students themselves, however, have to learn that what they tweet, email and put online will remain there forever and can have serious and sometimes damaging repercussions years down the road.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.