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Pasco students in uniform could face discipline for social media comments

The district also is looking to stop students from wearing pajamas to school.
Pasco County student athletes represent the school district while in uniform. That's why the School Board will consider stricter rules against those who misuse social media while in uniform.
Pasco County student athletes represent the school district while in uniform. That's why the School Board will consider stricter rules against those who misuse social media while in uniform. [ ALEJANDRO TAMAYO | Special to the Times ]
Published Jun. 1, 2020
Updated Jun. 2, 2020

While in uniform, Pasco County student-athletes represent their school — whether on campus, at a game, or even online.

School district officials say those students need to remember that fact, and know if they tarnish the team’s reputation they will face consequences.

“We’ve had some incidents where kids were in uniform and creating some social media postings ... doing things that technically could be disciplined," said Holly Rockhill, assistant director of student services.

Those included making harassing gestures, bullying others, and portraying possible threats. Yet principals did not have clear direction that such activities outside of school could carry penalties.

They asked for a change to the student code of conduct. The administration has submitted a proposal to the School Board for review during a workshop Tuesday.

The suggested rule, titled “Athletes and Social Media,” states that if a student-athlete violates the district’s digital citizenship guidelines, he or she will face consequences determined by the coach and school leaders. Those could include a one-game or multiple-game suspension, dismissal from the team and team forfeiture of games.

“It’s always been implied,” Rockhill said of the proposed actions, which would vary depending on the level of the infraction. “This is just a little more explicit.”

It has become necessary, she suggested, as video sites such as TikTok have gained more popularity.

The recommended change immediately raised concerns for Frank LoMonte, who heads the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. He suggested it could violate students’ First Amendment rights.

“If a school had a rule that, (for example), said ‘You will be punished if you are caught posting inappropriate language on social media,’ that would be such a slam-dunk First Amendment violation that any lawyer who signed off on it may as well mail their license back to the Florida Bar,” LoMonte said in an email.​ “The First Amendment does not permit any government agency, including a school, to punish people based on subjective notions of ‘appropriateness,’ for what should be obvious reasons.”

Any policy that would discipline students based on the subjective whim of the person in charge is legally void, he added. LoMonte further called the idea that students in uniform represent their school a “made-up piece of garbage” that schools try to invoke to extend their authority into students’ off hours.

Principals also asked for a change in the dress code, based on a rising number of students wearing pajamas — especially the fuzzy pants — to class.

The recommended code of conduct changes would ban pajamas and costumes, except during special days established by the school such as a dress-up activity during prom.

Rockhill said students with special circumstances would be considered. For instance, if a family has not been able to do laundry or may not have other clothing to wear, the school student services division would offer support rather than discipline.

First-time dress code violations generally are handled by requiring a student to change, sometimes with clothing provided by the school if needed. Parents might be contacted.

Tougher penalties usually come only after repeated refusal to follow the rules.

The School Board is slated to review proposed code of conduct amendments during a 4 p.m. workshop on Tuesday. Other items on the workshop agenda include a budget discussion, and proposed policy changes.