Are schools liable for inappropriate student use of the Internet and social media?

Two boys using a computer in a classroom. Stock photo by Getty Images.

Ah, it’s back to school time. The kiddies are excited (hardly), but parents are definitely giddy. Back to school is a time of reflection and nostalgia. The care-free days of summer are over and it’s time to get back to being studious and engaged in extra-curricular activities.

In these days of social media, where almost every child has a cellphone, has full access to the Internet, and is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat , parents often worry their kids will get into trouble for saying something inappropriate. Then, of course, there is the fear of cyber bullying, which came to the forefront in Canadian schools due to the tragic case of Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teen who committed suicide.

When you say good-bye to your children as they leave for school, you want to know they are protected, both from their own folly and from being cyberbullied.

So is the school responsible for making sure your child is not hurt by social media or by using social media and the Internet?

If your child uses social media while at school, or even outside of it, to say or spread malicious gossip or worse about another student, your child may be considered a cyber bully. It gets even worse if there are pictures or other images involved.  It is likely the school will react, because the school has the responsibility to keep its students safe from harm. So, your child is likely to be punished by the school for such behaviour. If your child said really offensive things online and/or posted nude or otherwise offensive images of another student, the school may even involve the police. Therefore, it’s actually best if your child’s school calls them out on their online behaviour as soon as possible, so they won’t get in worse trouble. Most important, the school should be contacting you and advising you of your child’s inappropriate behaviour.

In the reverse situation, if your child is negatively affected by another student saying nasty things or spreading bad images of your child through social media inside, and even outside school, you can demand the school do something about the student who is doing the cyberbullying.

According to Canadian law, schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students. A school that fails to take appropriate action to keep the students safe can be civilly sued. Even if the gossip being spread about your child is not defamatory, it may still create an unsafe environment.

In provincial law, the use of social media has also been addressed, mainly in reference to cyber bullying. Most provinces have a requirement for schools to monitor the behaviour of students when it comes to online or offline bullying. They do so by either requiring “bullying prevention” or they address online and offline misconduct in their code of conduct.

Also be aware that a new law has just been passed in Canada — Bill C-13 — that specifically addresses online behaviour when it comes to an intimate image of a person. Basically, the new law states that anyone who disseminates it, without the person’s knowledge, be it a photograph, film or video recording, may be found guilty of committing a crime. So, that puts even more responsibility on schools to make sure no inappropriate images are being sent by or about their students.

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