Kiwi girls suspended for Facebook comments

One of New Zealand's top private schools stood down four students for making derogatory comments on Facebook about a teacher and a student.

The case has sparked debate about the rights of schools to take action over private comments between individuals out of school time.

Diocesan School for Girls principal Heather McRae would not give the exact number of year 10 students involved, but a well-placed source told Herald on Sunday four girls were stood down and others given detention following two incidents.

The first incident arose in early May, when several 15 and 16-year-olds were chatting on their Facebook sites about another girl.

The source said the friends made comments like, "Oh, that so-and-so took such-and-such's boyfriend. She's such a bitch".

The second incident, in the past fortnight, involved a group of separate girls making derogatory comments about a teacher on Facebook. The source said the teacher was called a "bitch" and "lesbian".

The postings were printed out by a third party and handed to school heads.

"I understand the school was initially concerned that the girls chatting on Facebook were [involved in] internet bullying, but it turned out they weren't," the source said.

"It was just them chatting amongst themselves and they hadn't mentioned any names but they were making bitchy, nasty comments.

"The issue is, does the school have the right to stand down girls for comments made on Facebook in their own time, on their own computers, in what is supposedly a private forum?"

McRae conceded it was "a bit of a grey area" and "it will become more so for the coming years", but the school had a "huge responsibility" to educate girls on acceptable communication.

Asked where the school drew the line between privacy and parental and school issues, McRae said: "For me, where a student at the school is implied and abused, and where a teacher is implied, and abused, and named then I certainly feel a moral and ethical responsibility to follow up with that."

Diocesan should have passed concerns to parents and let them deal with it, the source believed.

"Should the school be snooping? I don't think the school has a right to go into someone's private life and say, 'Oh, we don't like what you were saying in private therefore we're going to stand you down from school'."

Dio, a decile 10 school in Auckland's Epsom suburb, describes itself as having "proud heritage of excellence in all aspects of girls' education".

New Zealand's Next Top Model winner Christobelle Grierson-Ryrie, 16, attends the school. Diocesan old girls include Olympic gold medal cyclist Sarah Ulmer, film director Niki Caro and swimmer Liz Coster.

After the two cases, McRae sent out a message in a school newsletter and spoke to students at assembly.

Children's Commissioner John Angus said he could comment only generally on the situation. "Disciplining students for something they've done out of school hours is a grey area.

"It certainly makes things difficult for schools when technology provides proof of what has been said about other students, teachers or the school. Gossip has always been a part of life as a teenager and it's only now, with things like Facebook, that we're coming up against these kinds of privacy and rights issues.

"Schools need to think carefully about the seriousness of what happened and the impact on other students, teachers and the school's reputation."

Netsafe director Martin Cocker said schools have a responsibility to maintain a safe environment. If things happened outside school hours that impacted on that environment, they can take action. But there were areas of defence when dealing with internet privacy.

The Ministry of Education would not comment and Education Minister Anne Tolley is overseas.

Under Diocesan rules a student can be stood down for up to five days in any one term, and 10 days over a year. The decision to stand down is made by the principal and does not go before the board of trustees.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald