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School district settles lawsuit with student over Facebook posts

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The Minnewaska school district in west-central Minnesota has settled a lawsuit filed by a student who was disciplined by school officials for comments she made on Facebook.

Riley Stratton, 14, will share the $70,000 payment with her attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. The school district has also agreed to change its policies regarding student privacy.

In 2011, Stratton posted on her Facebook page that she hated a hall monitor at her school. The ACLU, in its description of the case on its website, said Stratton wrote the post at home on her own computer. School officials punished her with detention and had her write an apology to the staff member.

Later, Stratton complained on Facebook about the fact that someone reported her to the school. Stratton was then given an in-school suspension and was prohibited from attending a school field trip, according to the ACLU. School officials say it was because Stratton's comments could have been perceived as threatening to the student who reported her first post.

Stratton was also ordered to turn over passwords to her Facebook and email accounts, so school and law enforcement officials could investigate another online conversation she had with a student, MPR News reports.

Stratton said her parents didn’t know she was forced to turn over her passwords, but school officials say they did ask her parents' permission.

The ACLU of Minnesota filed suit on Stratton's behalf in 2012. Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said school officials violated her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, according to MPR News.

"You have a 12-year old kid, and you've got two adults in a small room — she's locked in there," Samuelson said. "Seriously? That's wrong."

"It was so embarrassing and hard on me to go through, but I hope that schools all over see what happened and don't punish other students the way I was punished," Stratton said in a news release from the ACLU.

The Minnewaska Area School District will change its policies to address when electronic communication and electronic records may be searched, and the district will conduct training on the changes.

Greg Schmidt, the new superintendent of Minnewaska schools, says school officials did not intend to put Stratton’s family “at extreme disadvantage,” WCCO reports.

“[We'll] be certainly much more cautious about punishing people for things they say off-campus outside of school time,” Schmidt said.

Samuelson said he hopes the case changes how school districts respond to such incidents.

"What students do in their private home on their computers is by and large free from interference with the school," he said.

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