I posted a mean comment about a classmate - can I be suspended for that?

A mean comment that's distributed electronically, such as in an email or tweet, can form the basis of a cyberbullying charge.

Question:  I was dating a girl at my high school and she broke up with me. She told all her friends that I was too cheap to take her to the Miley Cyrus concert but she knew I just couldn’t afford it. The whole school knows about it now and I’m humiliated. So, I revenge tweeted that she is a sloppy kisser. Yesterday, the principal called me into her office and said I was suspended under the school’s anti-bullying policy! I can’t believe this is happening—she started the whole thing and my life is ruined. What can I do?

Answer:  Listen carefully—your life is not ruined. You are having a bad stretch but it will pass. If you have an adult in your life you feel comfortable talking with, do so right away. If you don’t, you need to find one. It’s important that you get some help in putting this whole matter in its proper perspective. Your girlfriend did a mean thing and you did, too, but it is not a disaster. As for the principal’s actions, she likely had no choice. But, there is a process that will be followed. This article will tell you what you can expect and what you can do.

Bullying

The term “bullying” is defined by state law; these definitions differ somewhat from state to state. In general, though, bullying is unwanted and offensive behavior by one student (or a group of them) directed at another student. A single incident that is not severe may not really amount to bullying under this definition. For example, if you had simply spoken to your ex-girlfriend the same comment that you tweeted, that would have been mean but probably not bullying. However, you ramped up the impact of your comment by tweeting it so that fellow classmates and others could see it.

So, it is as if you told each of your Twitter followers that your ex is a sloppy kisser. This may bring your tweet within the definition of bullying and, specifically, “cyberbullyiing.” For more information about teen cyberbullying in general, see our article,  Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.

School anti-bullying policies

Most states have anti-bullying laws that require schools to develop and enforce policies to prevent and address bullying by students. Under the policies required by these laws, schools must do certain things when administrators learn of possible bullying. If you don’t have a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy, have your parents request a copy. For more information about school anti-bullying policies, see our article,  What are schools required to do to address bullying and cyberbullying?

First, the school has to make sure the bullying ceases and must act to protect the target of the behavior. That is likely why the principal suspended you. But, if you don’t know exactly why the school suspended you, have your parents contact the principal and request a statement of the reason.

The school also must investigate the incident to find out if bullying actually occurred under the policy’s definition. This investigation will involve interviewing you, your ex-girlfriend, and other witnesses (those who read the tweet, for example). You will have a chance to give your side of the incident during this part of the process.

Finally, the school needs to take action if it finds that bullying has occurred. The policy will have a range of possible actions, from counseling to expulsion, that the school could take if it finds that you bullied your ex. Given the nature of your act, it is unlikely that it would justify expulsion, but your parents should get involved in the process and find out what you can do to minimize the punishment if the school concludes that you bullied the other student.

You are entitled to confidentiality during and after this process under the  Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

For more information on school policies, check out  the articles on the federal government's website, stopbullying.gov.

Harassment

A further complication in your situation is the nature of your tweet. Your comment crossed a different sort of line than your ex-girlfriend’s rumor about you. You referred to an intimate physical act (of a relatively minor nature) with her in your tweet. Such a reference could be viewed as edging into sexual harassment of the girl, especially if other students repeat it (as they apparently did, because your principal found out) and tease her about it. Public schools must address potential sexual harassment promptly and effectively or they face the risk of  losing federal funding. This won’t change the procedure outlined above, but it does raise the stakes a bit for the school. And, it should alert you to the heightened risk of tweeting or otherwise communicating anything of a sexual or intimate nature about anyone.

Take-away

You are learning a tough but valuable lesson about both the risks of retribution and the power of even petty comments when they enter the vast stream of the Internet. Everything you tweet, email, blog, post on a social networking site, instant message, or otherwise electronically transmit has potentially widespread distribution and eternal life. Take everything you write seriously, because other people (possibly including college admissions boards and employers) will. You are approaching adulthood and you will be a happier, more productive person if you really absorb the lesson from this experience.

Talk to Someone

It is essential that you get support throughout this process. If your parents are your support, great! Turn to them often. If you are not comfortable opening up to your parents about the incident for any reason, find another adult who can help. The federal Stopbullying.com website has a  link  to a site that can get you started in trying to find a helpful, qualified adult.

Talk to a Lawyer

Your parents may want to consult with a lawyer who is experienced in dealing with educational institutions for advice on how best to work within the school’s procedure to limit the damage this incident has on you.

Talk to a Lawyer

Start here to find criminal defense lawyers near you.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
FEATURED LISTINGS FROM NOLO
Swipe to view more
DEFEND YOUR RIGHTS

Talk to a Defense attorney

We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you