A northern New Jersey high school has been inundated with calls and emails from activists angry about the treatment of a junior there. She is accused of bullying over a series of tweets that was mostly about Palestinian rights but also kinda threatened a fellow classmate. School administrators now say they did nothing to censor or threaten the student, and that their investigation has nothing to do with politics.
The maelstrom began yesterday morning when Bethany Koval, 16, galvanized online Palestinian supporters and others, including members of the hacktivist group Anonymous, by tweeting about her two trips to meet with school administrators at her school, Fair Lawn High School, in suburban Bergen County.
The tweets included recordings of a man she identified as an assistant principal telling her that her online activity over school break, including a tweet that referenced "that pro-Israel girl at my school," could constitute bullying in the eyes of the state.
The administrator also pointed to tweets where Koval referenced "kids talking smack about me at my school." A classmate asked who and wrote that she was "ready to fight," and Koval said she was messaging "their names."
im sooooo glad that pro-Israel girl from my school unfollowed me! I'm so FREE now like..... FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL
— benny (@bendykoval) December 27, 2015
@L_Chevere YOU'RE MY FAVORITE LOCAL. I'M DMING YOU THEIR NAMES RN
— benny (@bendykoval) December 26, 2015
Koval said that during a second office trip, administrators had noticed her fiddling with her phone, took it from her and looked through it, and told her that the Board of Education could sue her if she was found to have filmed them.
School administrators maintained their silence as the voicemails and emails piled up, including ones from Gothamist and the New York Times, and a hashtag was born. By yesterday afternoon, she said the school was concerned about terror threats.
Whoever was representing the school went on to say they feared terror threats against the school.
— benny (@bendykoval) January 7, 2016
Now, in a statement, Fair Lawn school district superintendent Bruce Watson has spoken up to say that his office is for the First Amendment, can't discuss much about the specifics of the disciplinary process, and is just upholding New Jersey's strict Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (pdf):
We are responding to the controversy which has arisen, and the resultant media inquiries over online comments allegedly made by a Fair Lawn High School student concerning Israel. While pupil confidentiality laws prevent us from identifying or discussing individual pupils, we stress at the outset that at no time have District officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech. The Fair Lawn School District recognizes and respects individuals' First Amendment rights to free speech.
District Administration in this situation received a complaint alleging potential harassment, intimidation, or bullying ("HIB") by one student against another. We are obligated by New Jersey's anti-bullying statute—one of the strictest in the nation—to investigate any such allegation to determine whether an act of HIB occurred under the statute. The investigation is focused solely on the factors we are required to apply by law and not upon any political opinions expressed by any pupils.
We will complete our investigation in accordance with all legal requirements, and will continue to ensure that all parties involved are given a full and fair opportunity to share their side of the story. Upon completion of the investigation, the Superintendent of Schools will make a determination and report confidentially to the Board of Education in accordance with the process set forth in the statute.
The superintendent's office did not respond to a request for further clarification.
Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.
Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.
A former student at the Bergen County high school said that it implemented the HIB mediation policy in 2009, before the anti-bullying law, and that Koval's objection to it is overblown. The tipster wrote:
In my time at school, “HIB!” was ubiquitously half-jokingly used by students as a euphemism for tattling on someone messing with you. In many classic teenage situations, it’s basically a red tape time-out that you want to avoid by simply being nice to people. [...] These cases typically end with: "Student A: Unfollow B on Twitter, and apologize for what you said to them before. Student B: Refrain from targeting other people indirectly on the internet, and apologize to A."
Expulsion, the alumnus said, is rare.
Koval, for her part, had a hard time sleeping last night. She came into school this morning, attended an arts class where "I just spent my time trying to distract myself," then went into another meeting with administrators to deliver her written version of events (she convinced them to let her rescind her previous statement and think it over more).
Yes, I insulted your fav government. No, that does not justify threatening me with bodily harm.
— benny (@bendykoval) January 7, 2016
She said the meeting was cursory, and that the same administrators were present, though the assistant principal she recorded was noticeably absent. Asked if she thought about recording this session, she said, "I would never. I am already in trouble and I would not like to add to that."
Koval maintains that because the original tweets that offended her fellow student—defending Hamas as "not extreme" and calling Israel a "terrorist force"—were made outside of school and not directed at the girl, the bullying charge is inherently political and unfair. She said the tweets were "political if uncivil." As for DMing the girl's name to a peer, she said that no fight happened, and the girl couldn't have believed one would.
"You can tell by the rhetoric that it was all in play," she said.
Surprisingly, given Koval's previous pledges to "not be intimidated into silence," she said she now understands administrators' duties under the law. That doesn't mean she agrees with that law, or how they carried out those duties.
"The administrators did what they had to do," she said. "They did it in a very aggressive way, but they would have gotten in a lot of trouble if they hadn’t started an investigation. I think the law should be altered."
In the halls after today's meeting, she said she felt people looking at her strangely, and that some people bumped into her, but "I like to think it was accidental." She went home not long after.
Just couldn't make it through the school day. Too much aggression amongst classmates here. Going home now. I'm safe.
— benny (@bendykoval) January 7, 2016
For the time being, Koval plans to return to school tomorrow, but she is researching online schools because she said she no longer feels safe on campus. She is awaiting word from the school about the next step in the disciplinary process. She said her parents are considering taking away her phone, but "I would find a way to come back, definitely."
She said her folks wouldn't want to speak to reporters, but if they did, "They would say they are afraid for their wellbeing; they would say that we are a quiet family, except for me. They’d say they’re proud of me but want this to slow down as quickly as possible."
At the moment, that doesn't seem likely.
Fair Lawn High School (Google Maps)
ACLU-New Jersey senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom said that he has heard of the state's bullying law applied to arguably protected political speech before, but that based on what he's read, "This is probably the most egregious example of it I've heard." Shalom said that any bullying claim based on Koval saying "FUCK ISRAEL" and the like would clearly violate the First Amendment, and that the school objecting to Koval's friend's fighting words over break raises an issue that the ACLU objected to when the anti-bullying bill was first proposed.
"The school only has a right to regulate conduct when it has an impact on the orderly operation of the school" he said, continuing, "There are real concerns about the school getting involved in the business of students on break."
As for the alleged search of Koval's phone and lawsuit threat, he said that any search without a warrant would be a clear Fourth Amendment violation. Her recording of the conversation, on the other hand, is protected by the state's wiretap law, which requires that only one party be aware he or she is being recorded:
There is absolutely no basis under which they could sue her for recording that conversation. Moreover, by seizing her phone and searching it for evidence that she broke the nonexistent law that they're telling her they're going to sue her under, they have violated the state and federal constitutions. So it is true that the act of recording may well result in a lawsuit, but I think they have the defendants and the plaintiffs mixed.
Online, where this all started, someone has set up a fundraiser for Koval's as-yet-hypothetical legal fees, the Fair Lawn High School website has been offline for brief periods, possibly due to high traffic, and the issue shows no sign of losing momentum.
— Ali (@AliGatie) January 7, 2016
— Muftah (@MuftahOrg) January 6, 2016
#IStandWithBenny because government funded schools shouldnt have the right to censor the speech of their students
— Operation Ferguson (@OpFerguson) January 7, 2016
— ️ (@bholIybsus) January 6, 2016
— #StandUp Anonymous (@ShabnamPalesaMo) January 7, 2016
— TKrypt (@TKrypt_) January 7, 2016