Student returns from Web-related suspension

Groton — Fitch Senior High School senior Aaron Briggs returned to school Wednesday after a four-day suspension for problems stemming from an Internet site he created and has revived his Web site with new rules to prevent students from posting insulting and hurtful remarks about their peers.

Briggs, 17, said Wednesday that he and a group of friends would monitor the site closely and delete any inappropriate messages such as the ones that led to his suspension. But after the new site had been accessible for less than 24 hours, one section already contained profanities and locker-room style banter about wanting to have sex with a teacher and claims that a male student was sexually involved with an administrator.

The comments were in response to a poll Briggs posted on the site asking students to vote on which of several women teachers is the most attractive. Another poll asked students to vote on which student had the best party. Ninety-three votes were cast.

Briggs and his mother, Laurie Kim Briggs, said they are pleased he was allowed to return to school and that no further disciplinary action was being taken. His mother added that she believes the school overstepped its authority by punishing her son for messages sent to his site by other students. The site was created in his home, he worked on it on his own time, and he did not write the offending remarks, she said.

The remarks were mean, but not threatening and not of a criminal nature, she added.

Briggs said that when he first opened the site two weeks ago he monitored it, but then it became so popular he couldn’t keep up.

“I got 17,000 hits in two weeks,” he said, adding that its popularity showed Fitch students were hungry for such a forum. “Someone would say something bad about someone, then 20 people would say something good about the person, so I thought the good was outweighing the bad.”

Some of what students sent to the site was clearly beneficial to other students, Briggs said, such as a tribute to a classmate who had died a couple of years ago.

The problem arose over disparaging remarks about the personal behavior and appearance of students who were identified by name, and ex-boyfriend-girlfriend squabbles, Mrs. Briggs said. The authors of the remarks were anonymous. “It was a safe way to badmouth someone,” she said.

Students hurt by the remarks brought the matter to the attention of Principal John Luciano, who then took action, including the suspension and directions to Briggs to dismantle the Web site.

“The fact that the school can come into my home to discipline my son I find scary,” Mrs. Briggs said. “The administration said they would hold him responsible if a student got bad grades because of something said about them on the Web site. I feel the school is becoming a police state. They’re going outside the school and into the community and the home, and that’s scary.”

Briggs said he won’t pursue the matter, and that he understands why the school took the action it did.

“Some girls were crying,” he said, referring to students hurt by remarks on the site. He added, however, that he believes school administrators should have asked him to redo the site but not suspended him.

“They should have just tried to work with me,” he said.

Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national office in New York City, agreed that the school had no right to discipline Briggs for the material on a site he created and monitored from his home, even if portions of it were offensive. The school is within its bounds only to prevent students from accessing the site during school hours, Steinhardt said.

“But the student who created the site has the constitutional free speech right to do that,” he said. “He has the right to discuss school matters and just because the speech is hurtful or unpleasant doesn’t mean it can be restricted. We don’t believe school has any authority over what a student does on his own equipment off campus on his own time. It can only restrict what students do on school property.”

Briggs should not have been suspended, Steinhardt said, and was denied due process rights.

“Students do not give up their rights at the schoolhouse gates,” he said.

Superintendent Charles Muncatchy disagreed with the ACLU official’s view, saying anything that happens on or off campus that pertains to the school and harms the school environment is a matter appropriate for administrators to act on.

“If a child becomes suicidal (because of the Web site messages) that does impact what happens in school,” Muncatchy said. “He (Briggs) is a good young man who had a good idea but the ripple effect had some unintended consequences.”

School policies clearly state that students are to treat one another with courtesy and respect, and that they must use the Internet responsibly. The school system may consider reviewing its Internet policy in light of the recent incident, Muncatchy said. One change may be in the school’s policy of not restricting access to any sites on school computers, but expecting students to avoid inappropriate sites. Some students were accessing Briggs’ site, www.digypro.com, at school.

The site, Muncatchy said, got out of control and was hurting the health and safety of the school, and students’ characters were being defamed.

Fitch Principal Luciano said the material on the site “was a threat to the mental well being of the kids.”

“We felt it was going to get worse,” he said. “We didn’t overreact. We took the appropriate action.”

Marie Crompton, director of instructional technology and media services for Groton schools, said the school system has a very thorough Internet policy that students and their parents are asked to sign before students can use computers at school. She frequently gets calls from other schools that want to model it.

She said Briggs has been asked to channel his computer talents into helping the school update its Web site.
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