Dropbox Scandal: Did the Burrillville Vice Principal Break the Law?


News of a shared Dropbox folder featuring compromising photographs of teenage girls in Burrillville is a sort of nightmare scenario for parents with young daughters.  Saying that much shouldn’t be controversial.  But this paragraph in Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article raises a more-contentious point that even had us arguing among ourselves in the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity:

Vice Principal David Alba notified police on May 25 about the discovery of an “online school Dropbox” that showed graphic images of several girls at the high school, according to an affidavit supporting a search warrant. A boy at the school gave the administration a link to the Dropbox, which was turned over to the police.

Depending how Mr. Alba gained access to the folder, he may have broken Rhode Island law, because Rhode Island General Law 16-103 makes it illegal for any “private or public institution that offers participants, students, or trainees an organized course of study or training that is academic, technical, trade-oriented, or preparatory for gainful employment” to:

(1) Require, coerce, or request a student or prospective student to disclose the password or any other means for accessing a personal social media account;

(2) Require, coerce, or request a student or prospective student to access a personal social media account in the presence of the educational institution’s employee or representative; or

(3) Require or coerce a student or prospective student to divulge any personal social media account information.

In this case, a “social media account” would include any “electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online service or accounts, or internet website profiles or locations,” which would seem plainly to cover Dropbox.  It would also plainly prevent Alba from asking for a password, asking for the student to share the folder with him, or asking the student to open the folder in his presence.

This legislation became law in 2014 as S2094 and H7124, sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy, respectively.  The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity graded the bills with a positive 1 (out of 3) at the time, although my own initial score was -1.

My thinking at the time was that, as wary as I am of government’s invading people’s privacy, this legislation is simply too broad.  The inclusion of private institutions was the final negative factor, in my review.  (Why shouldn’t a private institution be able to require compliance with a social media code  under any circumstances whatsoever?)  But even focusing merely on the public-sector aspect of the law, it seems unnecessarily broad.

Basically, this is the state saying that no community can choose, through its local school system, to accept this sort of intrusion to solve any problem whatsoever, perhaps entirely unique to its circumstances — even if the school attempts to work collaboratively with parents to resolve some problem.

Well, now we have an example of one such problem in Burrillville.  It’s entirely possible that Mr. Alba is not aware of the law; it’s also possible that at no time during his interaction with any students did he ask to see anything, merely letting the confession(s) wash over him.  If not, if he did “request” access in any degree, and if the aftermath of the revelation becomes messy, the district may find itself subject to lawsuits from the students who had access to the Dropbox folder.

If any students are prosecuted, we may very well see their lawyers going after the school district either to have evidence thrown out of court or to gain some financial compensation for their clients.  There is no exception to the law that protects the district if it does, indeed, uncover illegal activity.

If something like this does occur, we can be sure that future school administrations will be much more wary of tracking down these problems, which means the harmful behavior will continue along until law enforcement finds out, somehow.  That possibility actually points to the worst aspect of this law:  With no threat of discovery through their schools, students may not be fortunate enough to be stopped before they do something truly harmful and truly criminal.

I wouldn’t want a law granting districts (or private schools, for that matter) access to social media accounts, but to categorically ban it takes away our right to form our laws at the local level, even in a private contract between a family and a private institution, very possibly to the detriment of our children.

  • Concerned

    Here’s my view. The Dropbox shared folder is not a personal social media account. By it’s very description it serves to share files, videos, etc among a GROUP of password holders. Thus, the vice principal would not be breaking the law.

    • Justin Katz

      The challenge for that analysis is that social media is, by definition, the sharing of media. As I quote above, the law defines “social media” as any service, account, or content, including (but not limited to) “videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online service or accounts, or internet website profiles or locations.”

  • mangeek

    Why should the school have anything to do with this? If there’s non-consensual sharing of illegal sexts going on, then it’s an issue for State Police or the FBI, not some school administrator.

    The reason faculty and staff are prohibited from asking this stuff is because they’re not held to the same standards as officers of the law.

    Same for campus rape. If someone is sexually assaulted on campus, that’s an issue for police, not college administrators.

    School admins should have as much to do with this as congress does with baseball. Oh wait…

    • Justin Katz

      I’d suggest you’re missing two points…

      1. Why should we answer at the state level whether the school has anything to do with this? Why shouldn’t a community in which you live be permitted to try resolving some problem of theirs by leveraging their schools?

      2. There are two topics here: Burrilleville and the social media law. It’s possible that, in some communities, leveraging the schools to address social media in some way would prevent kids from ever getting to the point that the FBI (!) gets involved.

      • mangeek

        If the content in question is ‘my naked (hypothetical) daughter’, then I frankly don’t want her school admins sifting through the evidence. I’d rather have someone not in my community.

        I also don’t think local police forces or schools have the skills needed to answer the questions these things bring up.

        I mean, Ideally, if a student reported a ‘mass sexting ring’, then I’d hope the school could address it by just having an assembly where they talked about how it was potentially illegal, potentially harmful, and totally not classy. There’s no need for administrators to ‘investigate’ within the school.

        Frankly, I think we need to tone-down the laws to a level where accountability isn’t so harsh, and is therefore easier to obtain. I don’t want teenagers going to prison for sharing pics, but I do want them to get fined or go to Community Service.

        • Justin Katz

          That’s my objective, too. One could make the case that allowing communities to experiment with school-based social-media policies creates the environment in which adults can cooperatively convey to students the appropriate use of technology without having to let things get to the point that the FBI has to be involved. I’d rather have a set of school policies that prevents social media from getting out of hand than have some random FBI or police officer looking at suggestive photographs of my daughters.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    This certainly takes us well into the murk of “legislating morality”. We also bump into the desire of some girls to “show it off”. If we get into “consent”, we must consider “implied consent” and “informed consent”. I am reminded of a woman I know, who having reached the “magic age” of 18, posed for Playboy’s “Girls of the Ivy League” while at Brown. After posing, she re-considered and attempted to get the negatives back. This was refused, “you consented”. Can such consent be terminated or withdrawn? Not sure about changes in “technology”. I remember hearing of nude pics from “Polaroid Parties”. Perhaps it is not “technology”, but rather “opportunity”. Taking a lead from “statutory rape” we have established the idea that there is an age below which it is impossible to “consent”.

    In an age of thong bikinis, yoga pants and “empowered women” such as Kim Kadashian, is nudity still “protected”? How old is Daenerys Targaryen supposed to be in her nude scenes. We have come a long way from draping piano legs so that men wouldn’t be excited, but where are we going?

    I have not formed an opinion. And you needn’t ask me what I would think if it was my daughter.

    I still need to gather my thoughts on the correct role of the school. I am not sure I am swayed by the existence of a statute, we all break the speed limit. Salus populi suprema lex esto