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NJ high school student warned of bullying after tweets critical of Israel

Bethany Koval, 16, live-tweeted a meeting with a school administrator about the issue, sparking a social media storm

A 16-year-old high school student in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, set off a social media storm this week when she live-tweeted a meeting with a school administrator who had called her into his office to discuss tweets she wrote that were critical of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. The school said it had received a complaint about the comments.

Bethany Koval posted on Twitter a recording that she claimed to have made secretly during the meeting with a school administrator, in which she was warned that her tweets could be seen as bullying in New Jersey, which has some of the nation’s strictest anti-bullying laws.

Her documentation of the events caught the attention of other Twitter users who started a hashtag, #IStandWithBenny, and posted contact information for the high school, urging people to call and demand that the administration respect Koval's right to free speech.

The school said Thursday that it was not planning disciplinary action against Koval, according to the attorney representing her.

"I assume that the school was trying to find a way to ratchet down the insanity,” said the lawyer, Stanley Cohen.

Fair Lawn Schools Superintendent Bruce Watson released a statement Thursday saying that “at no time have district officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech.”

The district "recognizes and respects individuals’ First Amendment rights to free speech,” the statement said, adding that the school was obligated under state law to investigate after receiving a complaint about “potential harassment, intimidation or bullying by one student against another.”

The statement added that the district would complete its investigation as required by law.

Koval, who identified herself on Twitter as an Israeli Jew, is active on the social media platform, with more than 21,000 tweets and 7,200 followers.

Her meeting with school administrators Wednesday appeared to focus on tweets she posted on Dec. 27, describing Israeli policies toward Palestinians as “apartheid” and in which, according to The New York Times, she said she was pleased that a classmate of hers who supports the Israeli government’s policies “unfollowed” her on Twitter.

In the alleged recording of her meeting Wednesday at the school, someone who is apparently a school administrator is heard saying to Koval: "You can sit there with your smug attitude right now, but if it's got to go into a bullying case because you think it shouldn't be and the state says it is, you're going to lose.”

Cohen, Koval’s lawyer, said Thursday that he believes the school's attention to her tweets stems from oversensitivity to criticism of Israeli government policies.

“Whenever someone says something critical of Israel, people panic," he said.

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