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Responding to Students' Increased Abuse of Yik Yak and Other Social Media

December 3, 2014

Students are using new forms of social media to bully their classmates and to threaten to commit violence at school. The latest incident occurred on the campus of Michigan State University early last week. There, a student used the Yik Yak app to threaten a school shooting, which caused multiple schools in the area to lock down. Yik Yak is a social media app that allows users to anonymously create and view messages made within a 10 mile radius. Despite its reputation for allowing users to shield their identities, Yik Yak has stated it will provide user information to local authorities in a variety of situations. The company's law enforcement guidelines state:

. . . Yik Yak may disclose user account information to law enforcement – without a subpoena, court order, or search warrant – in response to a valid emergency when we believe that doing so is necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to someone (for instance, in cases involving kidnapping, bomb threats, school shootings, or suicide threats). Yik Yak evaluates emergency requests on a case-by-case basis.

Pursuant to these guidelines, authorities investigating the MSU incident were able to obtain an IP address from Yik Yak and locate the suspect, who was charged with making a terrorist threat.  In addition to cooperating with authorities when threats are made via its app, Yik Yak will also create a "geofence" to prevent the app from being used at any school that requests it. 

Despite these remedial measures, similar incidents have occurred at schools throughout the country since Yik Yak was launched last November, and students are using other forms of technology to make school threats. According to a study by National School Safety and Security Services, 35% of the 315 documented school threats it reviewed in a six month period were delivered via social media, email, text message, and other electronic forms.

Schools face many challenges when investigating incidents of students bullying their classmates or making alleged threats via electronic devices. Such cases often present complex legal issues for school officials to consider, including students' First and Fourth Amendment rights and compliance with the Internet Privacy Protection Act, MCL 37.271, et. seq.

In addition to educating students on the consequences that will result from committing such offenses, we recommend school officials review their social media policies and stay up-to-date on the legal issues associated with student and staff member's misuse of technology.  

Clark Hill, in partnership with Plante & Moran, is hosting a seminar on January 10, 2015, during which we will discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with the use of technology in schools. 

For more information regarding this seminar, please contact Alyssa Bartell at  For more information regarding legal issues related to social media and technology in school, please contact Eric Griggs at (616) 608-1147 or or your Clark Hill Education Law attorney. 

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