Lamar High students suspended over 'riot' tweets
Apr 13, 2012 (Houston Chronicle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
See stills from cell phone videos of what some say was a riot at Lamar High.
A disruption last week at Lamar High School has social media buzzing about whether a "riot" took place on the River-Oaks area campus.
Cellphone videos, photos and Twitter posts show students fighting, spilling out of classrooms, screaming, pushing and running through campus on April 5 during the middle of a school day.
School officials are now analyzing students' Twitter posts to determine who created the disturbance.
Seven students identified as instigators have been suspended, including three who will be given Class C misdemeanors for disrupting class, according to Houston Independent School District spokesman Jason Spencer. Administrators also interviewed students and reviewed security tapes to determine which students helped cause the disruption.
HISD schools do not systematically review students' Facebook and Twitter pages, but have used social media as evidence against students to administer punishments, Spencer said.
"It doesn't matter what medium is used to break a rule," Spencer said. "Students have to be held accountable."
While social media are not routinely monitored in the Clear Lake Independent School District, they have been used to punish students as part of an ongoing investigation, spokeswoman Janice Scott said.
Students claim cover-up
In the Lamar incident, tweets poured out on April 5 such as, "We had a riot that lasted a good Hour [sic]. Fights=6, paper ball fight...lol its all on the News [sic]. Only @ Lamar High School." Others were more extreme, claiming, "If you were @ Lamar High School today you would've been on the verge of having SWAT shooting rubber bullets IF the riot lasted longer."
HISD believes the event was a hoax, instigated by students on Twitter. On Thursday, the official HISD Twitter account said reports of a riot were false and part of a "misguided prank."
"There were students that wanted to create the impression that a riot was happening, hoping that classes would get canceled for the day," Spencer said this week.
But some high school students on social media insist the administration is trying cover up a "riot."
"I felt concerned for my safety," said senior Holly Howard, who saw the crowds running through the halls. She dismissed the explanation of a senior class "paper-throwing prank" as untrue.
"They are using that as a scapegoat," she said.
What's certain is that social media exploded during and after the event with eyewitness accounts as students pulled out their cellphones. HISD prohibits the use of cellphones during class, but allows students to use them between classes and at lunch. By that afternoon, "Lamar High School" was trending on Twitter, and a Facebook page on the incident had been created a day later.
"All the students could tell that it wasn't a fight the administrators could control," said senior Amel Sengal. "It was complete ridiculousness."
Spencer said HISD believes that students organized a prank through social media in which they sent out tweets about a riot happening on campus. Two fights were caught on cellphone videos posted online.
Earlier in the day, just before noon, Spencer said a fight had broken out, which was captured on a cellphone.
During a change of classes around 12:30 p.m., students ran through the halls throwing paper at classmates and running from one side of campus to the other, he said. The second fight, also captured on a cellphone, occurred during that "prank," he said.
"All of this created a lot of disorder and disruption on campus that afternoon," Spencer said. "Personally, I don't think what happens constitutes a riot. ... It was all unacceptable behavior."
Cellphone use not issue
The students who directly fought on campus were also punished, but were not among the seven disciplined for creating a buzz about the incident, he said.
"I don't think there is evidence that the students who planned it also planned for the fight to happen, but it created an atmosphere that allowed that to happen," Spencer said.
He said cellphone use wasn't the issue: "What they were saying in the tweets was the problem."
Barbara Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards, said she is not aware of any new policies created for school districts to deal with social media. She said that districts are experiencing growing pains to see what works best for schools as far as what crosses the line.
"Polices are being built as we go along," Williams said. "It's an arena that is not well-defined at this point."
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