- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A 14-year-old bullying victim joined parents and school officials Tuesday in opposing a bill aimed at protecting student privacy.

The bill would prohibit any public or private school in the state from requiring or requesting access to students’ personal social media accounts. Supporters of the bill, including the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, argue that students have a right to personal, private lives outside of school and that accessing their accounts is an invasion of privacy.

But opponents, including Souhegan High School freshman Jonathan Petersen, said the bill would prevent school officials from fully investigating allegations of bullying. Petersen, who has autism, said he left school for a year after being bullied, and has continued to be a target since he returned this fall. He described a recent incident in which two girls took inappropriate pictures of him and said school officials should be allowed to quickly access such images before they are deleted.

“I’ve been bullied a lot and most of the time people get away with it,” he said.

Dean Michener, director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said the legislation not only hampers a school district’s ability to address bullying but also would affect investigations into inappropriate conduct between staff and students. He and other critics urged lawmakers to include exceptions for cases in which school officials have reasonable suspicions that policies have been violated.

“School districts have a unique parental role while students are in school,” he said. “If you move forward with this legislation, we think it should include a provision that districts are not liable when they don’t have access to evidentiary information.”

New Hampshire, which rejected a similar bill last year, is one of at least six states considering such legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twelve states already have enacted similar laws, but in all but three states, the laws apply only to colleges and universities rather than elementary and secondary schools, according to the Student Press Law Center. Some specify that the prohibition on accessing student accounts does not affect an institution’s right to investigate student misconduct.

State Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield, one of the bill’s sponsors, argued that such an exception was unnecessary. He described an incident in which high school students made threatening statements on Facebook.

“Another student saw it, showed it to a teacher, the teacher called the police, and it was taken care of,” he said. “On Facebook, most of the information is readily available without getting their user names and passwords.”

Devon Chaffee, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said without the legislation, school officials would be free to go on fishing expeditions in students’ social media accounts.

“We would never expect a school administrator to be allowed to enter a student’s bedroom and look at their personal letters or look through their photo albums,” she said. “We shouldn’t allow them to do the electronic equivalent.”

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