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Teens' Bold Blogs Alarm Area Schools
Personal information can also be used for commercial purposes. A letter from Georgetown Day last month warned students and parents that Facebook can sell information about students to marketers and can use and display their contributions, including photos.
In some ways, the Web sites are the modern equivalent of diaries kept by generations of teenagers.
But lockable journals and triple-underlined threats of "PRIVATE, KEEP OUT!" have given way to instant messaging, reality shows and a cyberculture that many adults find naive at best and exhibitionist and dangerous at worst.
Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that the sites pose new quandaries for educators, including cyberabuse. He cited a recent case in which three middle-school students in the Chicago area were suspended after posting obscene and threatening remarks about a teacher on a Web log. The school community was split over the action.
"It's an open question, because students have been writing these sorts of things for years but have been doing it in their notebooks, where nobody would have ever stumbled across it," he said. "With blogs, it's a sign of things to come -- we're sort of testing the notions regarding free speech."
Tim Trautman, head of Silver Spring's Barrie School, would not give specifics about the reason his school recently asked a student to leave. He said rules forbid students to "use technology at Barrie and elsewhere that defames individual members of any community."
In November, after a student at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring posted derogatory comments about black students on a blog, printouts of the comments were circulated on campus. The student eventually left; administrators would not say whether disciplinary action was taken.
Many schools forbid the use of school computers for anything not school-related. But it is much harder to regulate what students do on home computers.
"We try . . . to say that the boundaries are on school grounds and within school time, but if there is a case that does tend to spill over and directly impact campus life, all of a sudden space and location, the geography of it, becomes less important," Trautman said.
Schools are scrambling to come up with policies on the issue. A Catholic school in New Jersey banned use of the sites even at home, although experts question the legality of such bans.
Use of Facebook is easier for schools to regulate because it requires users to sign in using a school-issued e-mail address. But anyone can start an account on such sites as MySpace, and it is easy to find teenagers' blogs through those sites even without starting an account. Xanga, for example, groups blogs by high school or middle school, making it easy to find one for any teenager who has signed in to his or her school's "blogring."
Ironically, many teenagers are outraged or embarrassed when parents or other adults go to their sites. "I think they see it as a violation of their personal space," said Madeira's Cole. "They feel as if their diaries are being read."