Facebook Kill List Prompts School Expulsion, ACLU Lawsuit

    April 26, 2012

The hyper-vigilance against bullying continues to produce situations where it is difficult to discern between legitimate threats or intimidation and dark but innocent adolescent humor. The latest entry into the pool: three eighth-graders in northwest Indiana have been expelled due to a Facebook comment thread where they discussed which of their classmates they would like to kill.

A parent happened upon the thread and turned in a copy to the girls’ principal, who then suspended the girls for ten days before ultimately deciding to expel the trio.

The American Civil Liberties Union has responded to the girls’ expulsion by filing a lawsuit that claims their freedom of speech has been violated. From the Chicago Tribune:

According to the complaint, the conversation went from discussing the pain of cutting oneself while shaving to the girls’ friendship, before shifting to which of their classmates they would kill if given the chance.

The ACLU says the girls engaged in “teenage banter” and the conversation could not have been interpreted seriously. The complaint noted that the girls repeatedly used emoticons that indicated they were joking.

The complaint goes on to explain the difficulty the girls’ families have endured since being expelled, from financial hardship to denial of admission into other schools.

The girls are minors so their names were not released to the public, so it’s really kind of a needle in a haystack to try to find the original comments – assuming that the comments haven’t been deleted or the accounts haven’t gone on super lockdown privacy mode entirely.

These cyber-bullying scenarios are always murky waters to wade through. On the one hand, there have been some heartbreaking instances where making threats on Facebook have had grim consequences, such as in the case of Amanda Cummings, who committed suicide after enduring torment from classmates on both the website and in school. Whether this case in Indiana is the same or even remotely similar is unclear. Gleaning from the ACLU statement, though, it doesn’t appear that the three Indiana girls were actively threatening someone.

Talking about killing people on Facebook hasn’t gone without legal repercussions before. In Britain, a woman was sentenced to three months in jail due to making death threats via Facebook. Again, those threats seemed fixated on one person over a long period of time.

Aside from whether the school’s actions were justifiable or not, supposing the girls’ list of people they’d like to kill was driven by even a modicum of seriousness, simply suspending the girls from coming to school doesn’t exactly correct the girls’ behavior. In fact, now they’ve got all kinds of free time to plot and seethe about their death list because they no longer have to worry about going to school. Assuming there was any validity supporting the girls’ discussion, it’d be just as easy for them to target somebody outside of school as it would be inside the school. Kicking them out of school does nothing to redirect their aggression or actually impart on them the lesson that bullying is wrong.

Then again, that’s all supposition and it’s not clear whether the kill discussion had even a granule of sincerity. That’s why this stuff is so troubling because no school official wants to be the negligent one who didn’t “see the warning signs” before a student goes on some Columbine-like spree, which prompts school officials to be on Defcon 5 levels of alertness about potential bullying or threats. Unfortunately, otherwise innocuous chatter like what may have been the case for the girls in Indiana get picked up in this dragnet and punished as if they were absolutely serious about killing classmates.

Do you think the school responded appropriately? Or did they really overreach their bounds here by expelling the girls for an online discussion? How would you have liked to have seen this issue handled? Chime in below with a thought or two.