Kids Are Mean: Cyber-Bullying, “Sexting,” and Other Harmless Pranks
by Mel Riddile
The L.A. Times editorial staff believes that kids are naturally mean, and, when they are mean to each other, school officials should mind their own business. “Mean girls—and mean boys—have been terrorizing their classmates since the first schoolhouse was built.”
The editorial points out that some courts are refusing to back schools in their efforts to reign in the reputed bad online behavior because it did not occur on school grounds and because the schools failed to prove that the behavior could reasonably be expected or did cause a substantial disruption to the operation of the school.
According to the Times, “It isn't just students who are targeted by the online equivalent of "slam books," the notebooks furtively passed around playgrounds in previous generations in which children inscribed insults about their classmates. In Pennsylvania, a student was suspended and shifted to an alternative education program because he posted a parody MySpace profile that described his principal, among other insults, as a "big steroid freak" and a "big whore." A U.S. district judge lifted the suspension, saying that non-disruptive online speech couldn't be punished even if the offensive material could be accessed on school computers.”
A Principal’s Reaction
- Not my child – If it is my child being victimized, I want school authorities to protect her. If it is someone else’s child, she has the right to free speech. I wonder what the Times writers would say if it was their child who was the victim of harassment, cyber-bullying, or “sexting?” I bet that they would be contacting their attorney because the school failed to protect their child. The Times wants to paint this as schools attempting to extend their authority instead of what this really is - attempt by schools to protect their students and to meet their responsibility for the safety and welfare of the students.
- Power Hungry – The Times assumes that school leaders are power hungry bureaucrats seeking to extend their authority. This is not about authority. The issue here is responsibility. The first responsibility of every principal is to create a warm, safe, and orderly school environment in which students can learn and grow. Principals take their responsibility to protect all students very seriously. They treat their students with the same dignity and respect that they would want for their own child. When one of their students is threatened, harassed, intimidated, or bullied, they act to protect the student because they sincerely care for the student. Failure to do so could be considered negligence. Again we find dedicated, well-intentioned school leaders placed between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If they protect the student, they are violating the perpetrators rights. If they don’t act, they are found negligent.
- Only on school grounds - The editorial supports schools in their effort to prevent harassment and insults only when the behavior occurs on school grounds. Here is the crux of the issue. Where does the responsibility of the school begin and end. Is it, as some districts define, portal-to-portal—from the time the child steps out of the door in the morning until the child arrives home from school? Or, does the responsibility of the school begin and end at the border of school property during school hours? “…Educators should recognize the reasonable limits of their authority and confine their discipline to girls and boys who are mean to one another -- or to their principal -- at school.”
- I agree with the Times, “Schools aren’t hermetically sealed off from what students do at home.” Today, everyone has an electronic leash (cell phone) that connects them to the entire world. Those electronic signals know no boundaries. If you have a phone, you are connected. As the Times correctly points out, “the Internet has eroded an endless number of formerly clear distinctions, including those based on physical location. So, who gets the benefit of the doubt, the schools or the mean boys and girls?
What Can and Should Schools Do About Mean Online Behavior?
- First, schools must be safe havens where all students feel physically and emotionally safe and secure at all times.
- Schools need clear policies that define harassment, cyber-bullying, and “sexting,” and they need to consistently enforce the policies. Because the goal is not to apprehend and punish but to deter negative behavior and teach responsible behavior, the policy should contain a prevention component that contains provisions that students be taught “responsible use” of technology.
- When considering policies and practices, school officials should put the behaviors into context. Compulsory attendance laws require that students attend school. They have no choice. Unlike a cable TV viewer, students cannot simply change the channel whenever they like. They are compelled to be present and to be subjected to messages that they would normally tune out. Compulsory attendance places an added burden on schools to protect students. For years, one high school allowed students unfettered access to the public address system each morning. The simple act of standing in line allowed any student who wished to say anything about any subject. Not only did the morning announcements go on forever, but the entire school was forcibly subjected to frequent, inane rants. The new principal recognized his responsibility to all students by placing a staff member in charge of the announcements, which required prior approval and were delivered by trained student government officers.
- An enforceable school policy is not a board policy that passes the buck to the principal by simply stating that the school should have a policy. This provides board members with cover and wiggle room when parents complain, but it places school leaders in a position to have the rug pulled out from under them at any time that a constituent or board member disagrees. The result is usually an unenforceable policy.
- Schools would not allow anyone to print and freely distribute paper flyers that contained nude pictures, threats, or slanderous statements, nor should they permit those behaviors simply because they occur electronically.
- Schools must recognize that the Internet gives every student a license to print. A cell phone is literally an electronic printing press that sends messages to the entire world with the touch of a button. As such, the consequences of misdirected or inappropriate messages are instantaneous and virtually limitless in scope. In other words, one message can move faster and do a lot more damage than the printed word. One student with a cell phone can literally direct a “reign of terror” toward another student.
- At some level, students understand that electronic messages are impossible to stop and can be viewed by anyone. Consequently, they are quicker to anger and easily incited to violence when someone posts a derogatory message on social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace. Some schools even refer to the resulting altercations as “MySpace fights” or “Facebook fights.
- Harassment is harassment whether it is electronic, verbal, or in print.
- Problems usually stem from how schools deal with the issues not from the fact they actually address the issue. Because most parents don’t want a suspension on their child’s record and certainly not a cyber violation, making suspension from school the first response will set everyone up for a disagreement. Attempting to use school authority to force someone to “take down” a comment or an inappropriate post will, more often than not, result in a confrontation. Many principals have found success by simply having a conversation with the parents of the offender. In my experience, the simple act of setting up a meeting almost always resulted in successful resolution because, it turns out, the parents were not aware that their child’s electronic behavior in the first place.
- If a student brought a Playboy to school in the 1970s, I confiscated the magazine and called the parents. Future violations would result in strict disciplinary action. Distributing inappropriate photographs of students would result in the same. In the case of “sexting,” schools must make it clear in writing that this behavior is harmful, probably illegal, and unacceptable.
- Any student who is bullied, harassed or “sexted” has been victimized. The behavior should be treated as serious and stopped. The victimized student should be given support from a student-services team consisting of an administrator, counselor, social worker, and a school psychologist.
- Like any other illegal acts, these behaviors should be reported to the School Resource Officer or the appropriate law enforcement personnel. Child abuse must be reported to the appropriate authorities in a timely manner. This should be explicitly stated in policy.
- Schools must have clear guidelines and policies that allow them to deal internally with bullying, intimidation, harassment, and “sexting,” separate and apart from any criminal or legal action.