Recent articles about cyber-bullying reminded me of the extraordinarily high expectations that parents have for public schools when other children are cruel or threatening online to their sons or daughters. Consider what happened in a New Jersey affluent suburb.
Parents of a middle school girl showed the principal sexually explicit threats texted to their daughter over the weekend from a twelve year-old sixth grade boy. They wanted the principal to discipline the student. Principal told them that incident happened outside of school on a weekend and he could not do anything to the boy.
Had parents contacted the boy’s family, principal asked. No. Why? The fathers knew each other well through coaching. Had they contacted the police? No. Why? Because filing a police report would lead to unwanted publicity and an uncertain outcome. They pleaded with the principal for immediate help.
After much begging by the parents, the principal of this 700-student middle school agreed to talk to the boy. Over the next few days unraveling exactly who had sent the threats and why, the principal, his assistant principal, a counselor, social worker, and elementary school principal spent over 10 hours.
The upshot was that the 12 year-old boy initially thought to have sent the messages had lost his phone, someone else had found it and texted the girl. The principal told the parents they could not determine who that other boy was. The parents wanted the principal to continue investigating. He said he could do no more. The parents, of course, could sue the school for not protecting their daughter from the unknown cyber-bully.
Now travel to Beverly Hills where a parent did sue a middle school. Not, however, for failing to protect his eighth grade daughter but for intervening in an after school incident. The eighth grader (called J.C. in court documents) had videotaped friends at a coffeehouse after school as they made spiteful and cruel remarks (“ugly,” “brat” and “slut”) about another eighth grade girl. J.C. went home and put the video on YouTube where it went viral at the school. As a result, a school administrator suspended her for cyber-bullying. J.C.’s father sued: “What incensed me was that these people [suspended] my daughter for something that happened outside of school.”
The local judge ruled in the parent’s favor because the school cannot discipline a child for speech “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature … and may often fight over hurtful comments.” The district had to pay court costs of over $100,000.
Two middle schools, yet two opposite outcomes in dealing with cyber-bullying. One parent expected the school to mind its own business when his daughter and friends made an after-school video and the other parents begged for the schools to intervene. School administrators were criticized for suspending the videotaping eighth grader and criticized for not doing enough in the instance of the texting sixth grader.
Expectations for what schools should do when it comes to the moral questions of cyber-bullying and the free speech of immature adolescents remain in conflict. To what extent does school authority extend beyond its building and hours in session? The answer rests in cases moving through the courts as judges seek a balance among the rights of students to exercise free speech, the rights of students to feel safe in a school, and issues of parental privacy.
Yet there are conflicts between public expectations for what schools should do with children and youth that courts cannot resolve. High expectations for schools to solve the problem of teenager cruelty to one another when it occurs in or out of school comes into conflict with other societal expectations for schools to be modern, innovative, and with-it when it comes to new technologies.
Parents (also add employers, most educators, and voters for tax levies) expect schools to deploy the newest technologies so that students could learn more, faster, and better. They expect teachers to use these new technologies in ways that will enhance their teaching. They expect that students using these new technologies will be ready to enter the labor market fully equipped to manage the demands of jobs in a knowledge-based economy.
Here’s where the conflict between societal expectations pinches. Since children and youth typically watch screens daily (TV, cell phones, laptops, desktop computers, and other hand-held devices) that screen time has grown from over 6 hours a day in 2004 to nearly 8 hours a day in 2009 (or over 53 hours a week excluding screen time done in school). Moreover, since social media for teenagers involve heavy-duty interactions even to the point of utter dependency upon the devices (maybe addiction?)–see my post of June 17, 2010–should parents, voters, and educators encourage children to spend even more time on screens in schools? The next post will explore answers to this question.