How far can a school go in policing a student's off-campus activities?
Sitting at home when he ordinarily would have been at school, a 17-year-old honor student at Cesar Chavez High School recently had several long days to ponder that thorny question. Late last month, David Guzman, a junior, was suspended after authorities objected to rumors of an alleged high school sex scandal that recently appeared on a Web page Guzman operated out of his home. Sort of an unofficial chat room for Guzman and his classmates, the seven-month-old site was called BallSweat.
Early last week, Guzman had plenty to sweat over. In addition to the suspension, Guzman learned he could be expelled for up to a year, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing.
During a brief phone interview, Guzman described himself as "a good student" who had received a raw deal. As he points out, he wasn't operating the site using school property or during classroom time.
"I feel like this is messing up my life," says Guzman, who is a star student at the Laveen high school. "I'm in a precalculus class, take honors classes, and I don't even know if I'm going to make it to the university now."
At issue was a message board post involving a rumor that was already floating around the campus grapevine: A female student had reportedly been telling friends that she was sexually involved with an adult employee at the school. (The site -- www.geocities.com/ballsweat2K1 -- has subsequently been redesigned and now consists of a brief first-person description of Guzman's battle with the school.)
"I didn't even post the message; someone else did," says the puzzled teenager. "I don't know why this is happening."
If school officials have their way, neither will anyone else who's not directly involved in the situation. Jim McElroy, principal of Cesar Chavez, did not return calls. Citing student privacy issues and a school policy against discussing employees, Phoenix Union High School District spokesman Jim Cummings refused to comment, except to say that the district was aware of the Web site and was conducting an "intensive investigation" into the allegations of the student-employee tryst.
"Some of the students are pretty upset," says one student who prefers not to be named. "They think this falls into the First Amendment category. This is about freedom of speech."
Or more precisely, the lack of it as it pertains to high school students.
Guzman's troubles have reportedly been the talk of the campus -- especially in the school's journalism class, where Guzman is regarded as a minor-league martyr. To date, however, the school newspaper has yet to publish a story about the high-profile controversy. According to one source in the class, students are afraid to publicize the incident for fear they too will be disciplined.
In some ways, Guzman's situation provides a watered-down parallel to one of the plot threads of the TV show Boston Public. In that critically acclaimed Fox series about high school life, a teen rabble-rouser operates an outlandish Web site on which she brutally satirizes teachers and staffers. Although outraged, the school administration is helpless to do anything because the girl is exercising her right to free speech.
Surprisingly, David Guzman found an ally where he least expected it: The new head of the Phoenix Union High School Board is Gary Peter Klahr, an outspoken Phoenix attorney who has long been involved with the Phoenix branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
With a few exceptions (including a caveat forbidding students from operating or accessing such Web sites from school computers), "schools cannot interfere with personal Web sites," Klahr says. "There's case after case where the ACLU has litigated and the schools have lost in most every case."
A nonissue prior to the rise of the Internet, student Web sites now run second only to school violence as the latest scholastic hot button. Making the matter more worrisome is that the two phenomena sometimes overlap, as was seen when law officers investigating the Columbine shootings later discovered a Web site in which teen terrorists Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold provided a virtual preview of the high school massacre.
Still, courts have generally sided with students' rights to maintain private Web sites, provided the sites do not contain any material that can be construed as "threatening." In a Washington state case, a court ruled in favor of a student even though his Web site included an image of the school principal committing sex acts with Homer Simpson and having anal sex with a pig.
But a Pennsylvania student wasn't as lucky after his Web page featured an image of his math teacher's decapitated head morphing into Hitler's face, accompanied by a plea for donations to hire to a hit man to kill him. The court deemed that depiction as a threat and upheld his expulsion.
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Fortunately for David Guzman, his case most likely will never go to trial. Following a closed hearing on April 3, the school decided against expelling him and has since readmitted him to class, presumably on the assumption that he'd learned his lesson.
What that lesson might be is anyone's guess, as is the future of Web sites like Guzman's.
"What did this kid do?" asks one observer. "If the school wanted to go after someone, they should have gone after the person who actually posted the message, not David. And even that doesn't make sense. What's more important -- some kid's Web site or the possibility that an underage student is having sex with a school employee? This is like 'kill the messenger.'"
Or, in this case, "kill the guy who runs the message board."