When Mark Kuisle steps out of his office at Century High School, it's not unusual for him to find pictures of his students engaged in illegal activities — drinking, smoking or otherwise — slid under his door upon returning. Others simply email him such pictures.
While some may criticize the 21st century cybersnitches, it's become an all-too-familiar dilemma for local activities directors who are faced with disciplining student-athletes for images that can easily be pulled from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
"Kids are very bold with what they're putting out there on their Facebook pages or through instant messaging, and even text messages," said Kuisle, Century's activities director and former Minnesota State High School League President. "Once you put it out there, you're risking it coming back to haunt you. It's just amazing what type of information people are putting out there these days."
Data shows that Kuisle's situation has become the norm as school officials — and law enforcement — across the country have been forced to confront the ever-evolving realm of social media. The recent rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, provides the most extreme example to date. That incident involved a local blogger taking screenshots of offensive social media postings, which were later deleted, to help build the prosecution's case and ultimately make two convictions.
Many Minnesota high schools have actually adopted social media rules, with Bloomington Jefferson officials posting the following warning in its locker rooms: "Treat every conversation you have on Twitter or Facebook as if it were a nationally televised press conference."
The issue has become so rampant that the MSHSL amended its bylaws in 2005 to allow information — and pictures — gathered from social media sites to be used in investigations over potential rules violations. The updated MSHSL rules sate that pictures showing students engaged in potentially illegal behavior, such as holding a beer can, is often enough for school officials to rule that a violation has occurred.
While it's unclear how many infractions have occurred because of the new rule, the Rochester Police Department issued 93 tickets for underage possession between 2007-12 and reported 506 alcohol offenses for those under 18 during that same time frame.
"We have due process, but it doesn't have to be the same level as law enforcement," Kuisle said. "Social media is public information, not private. If it's you in the picture, the authenticity is pretty reliable.
"If it looks, tastes and smells like (a rules violation), that's probably what it is."
Penalties for such violations vary in districts across the state. The MSHSL requires a minimum suspension of two weeks or two games, whichever is more, for a first offense. However, Rochester Public Schools adopted much stricter language in 2000, which includes an additional nine-week suspension if the student initially denies the charge and is later found guilty of an infraction.
Some area schools have followed Rochester's example — Lourdes, Dover-Eyota and Stewartville, to name a few — while Austin's rules fall somewhere in between.
Despite those increased punishments, not everyone is convinced it's effective.
"Deterrence works for some people, but peer pressure dominates," said Thor Bergland, a counselor at Austin High School.
For high-level athletes, there are additional forms of deterrence. An MSHSL rules violation prevents that individual from being selected all-conference, among other honors. Also, Kuisle says college coaches have told him they've pulled scholarship offers based on what's been found on individual's social media accounts. That claim is backed up by a recent article in the Chicago Tribune.
"We just decided this week to stop recruiting a handful of kids we really liked because of different things we saw on Twitter and Instagram," said a Big Ten recruiter. "(Some of the) kids made a visit here and they seemed like great kid(s) in person but kept up a really disturbing pattern; it's something we just won't deal with. We would rather take a chance on another kid."
MSHSL's Alcohol Policy
1st Offense: 2 weeks suspension or 2 contests, whichever is more*
2nd Offense: 3 weeks suspension or 6 contests, whichever is more
3rd Offense: 4 weeks suspension or 12 contests, whichever is more
*MSHSL does not differentiate between consumption and possession
Rochester's Alcohol Policy
(Mayo, JM, Century and Lourdes)
1st Offense: Consumption means 50% loss of eligibility for one season; possession is MSHSL rule
2nd Offense: Consumption means loss of eligibility for one calendar year; second possession violation is the MSHSL rule
3rd Offense: Consumption results in a total loss of eligibility; third possession is MSHSL rule