Bethany Koval has 7,584 Twitter followers and counting. Recently, these followers were reminded that Koval is a 16-year-old high school student — one who can be called to the principal’s office.
Her offense? It depends on whom you ask.
Koval is a student at the suburban Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey, home to some of the country’s toughest anti-bullying laws thanks to the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman in 2010. This may be part of the reason school administrators were on alert when they saw that Koval had been tweeting controversial statements about Israel, including one referring to a “pro-Israel” classmate who had unfollowed her.
Earlier this week, she was called to the principal’s office, where she recounted in a series of tweets that the assistant principal showed her printouts of her tweets and asked, “Do you realize that what you put out electronically can also get you in trouble in school, or put you in some kind of problem?”
On an audio recording that Koval surreptitiously made and uploaded, she can be heard responding, “I haven’t put anything problematic out there. Maybe controversial.”
“That’s your interpretation,” the assistant principal countered. “There’s a state law that might interpret it different.”
He pointed to one tweet, from Dec. 27, that read: “i’m sooooo glad that pro-Israel girl from my school unfollowed me! I’m so FREE now like…[expletive] ISRAEL.”
In another tweet, Koval, an Israeli Jew herself, promised a friend that she would send the name of the “pro-Israel girl” in a private message. She told The Gothamist that she did in fact send it, “but of course it didn’t go farther. [My friend] didn’t even know the girl.”
According to Koval, the assistant principal then coerced her into writing a statement describing the events, despite her objection that she didn’t want to write it without a lawyer present.
School administrators, including the principal, reportedly searched Koval’s phone because they suspected she was recording the meeting, and told her that she could be sued by the Department of Education for doing so.
She was later told that she could rescind her original statement and write a new one, The Gothamist reports.
New Jersey state law defines “harassment, intimidation or bullying” as “any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication…that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by an actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation…” that either takes place on school property, at a school-sponsored event or off school grounds in a way that “substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students.”
In addition, the conduct must have “the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students” and must create “a hostile educational environment for the student …”
(The law also imposes a requirement that a reasonable person would know the conduct in question will have the effect of causing physical or emotional harm to a student or damaging a student’s property or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or damage to property.)
Students who are found to have committed acts of bullying can be suspended or expelled.
These guidelines were toughened after Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge five years ago. His roommate and another classmate had been using a webcam to film his romantic encounters with men, behavior that Clementi had informed university officials about shortly before his death.
Since the tragedy, a greater vigilance surrounding cyber-bullying has been widely applauded, especially in New Jersey. But could the attention to Koval’s Twitter account be a case of school interference gone too far?
The high school student says the accusation of bullying is just a mask for what really bothered the school: her condemnations of Israel. Koval maintains that she never publicly mentioned her “pro-Israel” classmate by name.
“I never degraded her,” Koval wrote in a message to the New York Times. “They use ‘bullying’ as a guise to cover their pro-Israel, pro-censorship agenda.”
According to Mondoweiss, a news site about debates surrounding Israel and Palestinians, Koval started tweeting about the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Dec. 22, during her holiday break. A few days afterwards, she heard that the unidentified classmate had been offended by her language.
“Israel is a terrorist force :(,” she tweeted on Dec. 23. “Hamas is not extreme: Hamas is just painted that way Hateful rhetoric against Hamas is what allowed the Gaza bombing.”
On Dec. 27, she wrote: “But actually I can get in a LOT of trouble with my school for my anti-Israel sentiments on here A girl I know got in trouble for a [Black Lives Matter] post.”
Fair Lawn School District released a statement Thursday addressing the incident.
“While pupil confidentiality laws prevent us from identifying or discussing individual pupils, we stress at the outset that at no time have District officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech,” wrote superintendent Bruce Watson, adding “The Fair Lawn School District recognizes and respects indviduals’ First Amendment rights to free speech.” But, Watson explained, the school district “received a complaint alleging potential harassment, intimidation, or bullying by one student against another” which “[w]e are obligated by New Jersey’s anti-bullying statute…to investigate…”
He added that 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.”
Social media users have rallied to Koval’s defense, employing the hashtag #IStandWithBenny to bemoan Fair Lawn High School’s alleged infringement of her free speech rights. A group purportedly associated with Anonymous has even created a video to demonstrate support.
— ️ (@bholIybsus) January 6, 2016
#IStandWithBenny bc we never shut up about "free speech" but then it's all "the law is against you sharing your views" if we don't agree.
— Madison Lawrence (@madisonlawrence) January 6, 2016
In an interview with Mondoweiss, Koval said she’s not prepared for fame.
“I don’t want to be the face of the movement,” she said, “I want Palestinians to be the face of the movement. It’s not right when privileged people get credit for what under-privileged people have been saying for a long time.”
Koval’s parents, who she said don’t support her views, are worried about her safety. She tweeted that they were “REALLY mad,” though she said they have since calmed down.
Back at school, all the controversy has caused a “divide between friend groups,” Koval, who left school early on Thursday, told Mondoweiss. “It’s going to be odd to go back…I didn’t expect, I didn’t see this coming.”
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