SCHOOL MOVES TO POLICE STUDENTS ONLINE

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By Adrian Morrow

Associate News Editor

A first-year student is on the brink of being expelled for running an online study group.

Chris Avenir, a chemical engineering student, joined the Facebook group “The Dungeon/Mastering Chemistry Solutions” to seek help and examples from other students for upcoming tests and assignments.

After an administrator discovered the group, Avenir’s professor gave him an F in the course, charged him with academic misconduct and recommended that he be expelled.

Of the 146 members, Avenir was singled out because he was designated as a group administrator. He says he is being treated unfairly, especially since never posted any answers on the discussion pages.

“What we did wasn’t any different than tutoring, than tri-mentoring, than having a library study group,” Avenir said. “I’m being charged with something I didn’t commit.”

This is the first strike in a new offensive by Ryerson to crack down on student conduct on the Internet and off campus.

This week, the school brought a policy to Senate that would extend its Non-Academic Student Code of Conduct to incidents that happen online.

“The student code of conduct needed updating, recognizing that there are things like Facebook, YouTube, stuff like that out there,” said President Sheldon Levy.

The change to the policy was partly prompted by Ryerson students who set up “white culture” groups on Facebook last year.

The proposed changes would also give the school the power to punish students for infractions that happen off campus, if they’re using the Ryerson name at the time.

The policy and Avenir’s pending expulsion have ignited student opposition to the university’s bid for more authority over student behaviour.

“The university is interfering in students’ personal lives,” said Salman Omer, a third-year aerospace engineering student and Senate member.

“This is an infringement of our rights.”

Ryerson’s actions are part of a trend at North American universities to police students’ online activities, opening a debate on security culture.

South of the border, Georgia’s Valdosta State University expelled student Hayden Barnes in January for posting a collage online that made fun of the school president.

And when Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. tried to bring in a similar policy, 2,000 students signed a petition to get the policy killed.

“People really feel that the Internet shouldn’t be policed,” said Tyler Roach, president of the Trent Central Students’ Association. “There’s a large contingent [of students] that thinks we shouldn’t even have a student non-academic policy.”

Kim Neale, student issues and advocacy co-ordinator with the Ryerson Students’ Union, thinks the move to police students’ activities outside school will create a culture of fear on campus.

“When did we lose faith in our students and how they behave?” Neale said.

The issue highlights a generation gap between students who use the Internet as an informal forum and school administrators who are trying to figure out how to deal with it, she said.

“I don’t think any university has caught up with the technology,” she said, pointing out that none of the adult members of the Senate committee that drafted the policy have a Facebook account.

The committee made a few compromises for students — such as protecting the right of students to hold protests off campus — but refused to budge on the Internet policy.

Levy maintains that the policy strikes a balance between students’ rights and the university’s desire to hold them accountable for what happens online.

“There’s lots of opportunities for a complaints process and appeals process as with all policies,” he said.

Now that the policy has been presented to Senate, there’s a month until it gets voted on.

Some are fighting the policy by getting gangs of students to come to Senate and sign a petition.

So far, Avenir is the only member of the Facebook group charged with academic misconduct on the Internet. He has an appeal on March 11 and, even if he wins, he’s hoping to get his friends involved in the fight to get the policy rolled back.

Avenir has already missed an appeal because the school informed him of it in an e-mail rather than calling him.

He thinks it’s ironic that the school would embrace one form of technology while punishing another.

“It’s stupid to reject new technology,” he said. “If they win this, it will set a precedent.”

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