A New Jersey high school student found herself in a social media storm on Wednesday after she live-tweeted and apparently secretly recorded a trip to her principal’s office.
She said administrators warned her that her comments about Israel and a fellow student on Twitter might have violated a state law against bullying.
The student, Bethany Koval, a 16-year-old Israeli Jew, said she had been reprimanded by administrators at Fair Lawn High School in Bergen County for a tweet that contained a string of expletives directed at Israel and expressed happiness that a pro-Israel classmate had unfollowed her Twitter account.
New Jersey has some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation. After the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, in 2010, it passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a far-reaching law with stiff penalties for educators who do not sufficiently respond to complaints of harassment or intimidation.
Administrators took particular interest in a tweet that Ms Koval posted on Dec 27 after a classmate who had taken offense at her political views unfollowed her, she said. She said they also reprimanded her for a second tweet in which she told a friend she would name the student in a private message. They also searched her phone, suspecting that she was recording the meeting and warned that she could face legal action, she said. They were right to be suspicious. She later posted audio clips on Twitter.
Ms Koval said she believed neither statement constituted an act of bullying.
“Her name was never mentioned,” she wrote in a message on Wednesday night. “I never degraded her. They use ‘bullying’ as a guise to cover their pro-Israel, pro-censorship agenda.”
Ms Koval, who goes by the nickname Benny, found a well spring of support online, the blog Gothamist noted. Many of her more than 6,000 followers expressed solidarity with the hashtag #IStandWithBenny.
In a recording posted by Ms Koval, an administrator can be heard telling Ms Koval that the state could determine that she had committed an act of bullying for a tweet that referred to a fellow student as “that pro-Israel girl from my school.”
“You are talking about her to someone else,” the administrator said.
“Yes, I am,” Ms Koval responded.
On another recording Ms Koval can heard telling the administrator that she believed her tweets about Israel were “controversial” but not “problematic.”
“Well that’s your interpretation,” the administrator responded. “There’s a state law that might interpret it differently.”
James Marcella, the principal of Fair Lawn High School, said in an email on Thursday that the issue had been referred to the superintendent of the Fair Lawn school district, Bruce Watson. Mr Watson, in turn, said that the district could not discuss confidential matters involving students but was obligated by New Jersey’s strict bullying law to investigate a complaint alleging harassment.
“At no time have District officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech,” Mr Watson wrote. “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.”
Stanley Cohen, a lawyer who advised Ms Koval and her family about the issue on Wednesday, said he doubted that the complaints over her tweets would evolve into a legal case. Mr Cohen, a lawyer known for representing controversial clients, said he hoped school officials would “look beyond the emotion of the moment and say ‘Move on, this is no big deal.’ ”
Ms Koval said she was “beyond grateful” for the online support but said the response offline had been less warm. Her parents were worried their home would be vandalized. They were planning to join her at a follow-up meeting with administrators. But she later told her Twitter followers that she had cut her school day short.
Just couldn’t make it through the school day. Too much aggression amongst classmates here. Going home now. I’m safe.