Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bullying Teachers and Digital Citizenship

An article by Christine Armario with the Associated Press reported on incidents of students bullying teachers, principals and other school employees. A few examples:

* In New York, Karen Klein, a bus monitor, was tormented to tears by students taunting her, including references to her dead son - and it was all captured on video and posted to YouTube.

*  In Maryland, students posed as their principal's children on pedophile websites. In other locations, students claim to be their teachers "on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sties claiming to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the group's anger. Others have stolen photographs from teacher's cell phones and posted them online."

* In Florida, a student started a Facebook site for other kids to express their hatred for teacher Sarah Phelps. The student, who eventually took the site down, was suspended and disciplined by the principal. But the ACLU backed the student's right to free speech, and she won $15,000 in damages and attorneys fees in a suit against the principal.

I don't know any details of this last case other than what was published in Armario's article. Maybe Ms. Phelps is a terrible teacher. But maybe she's a darn good one, or even somewhere in between. Regardless of her teaching abilities, her case seems to highlight how the right to Free Speech through the digital means can encroach on a person's right to common respect and dignity. As a society, I'm not sure we've given this enough reflection. A person obviously has the right to ruin his or her own reputation. But do we have the right to do it for them using widespread digital means? The issue is gray, according to our court system, which is inconsistent with their rulings with similar cases (see Wired, 2010).

Bullying and assaults on others' reputations is nothing new, of course, but it seems that with social networking and other online tools, it's easier than ever to do. According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, online harassment and bullying is different from traditional forms of bullying because of the speed and breadth of how messages are distributed, and because inhibitions are lower through "computer-mediated communication."

I thought the teachers had some insightful words. While Ms. Phelps encouraged parents to turn kids' mistakes into "teachable moments," she said in a written statement: "We need to redefine and expand our definitions of bullying, particularly techno-spread bullying devoid of personal accountability and disseminated under the guise of free speech."

Klein, the bus monitor, asked in an interview why students "would treat a bus monitor in a way they would not treat their own grandmother." She poses an interesting question. Why would we not do unto others as you would have them do to you - our your loved ones? 

Are we ready to throw that age-old principal out the window as we send a message that publicly bullying teachers - or anyone - is a viable form of expression? With all the positives that the Internet brings: enhanced connectivity, a sense of community, and access to information at our fingertips, individuals also have so much more power to hurt one another through the use of our social networks and other online tools.

We can't legislate digital citizenship, but we can still be good digital citizens. We can support those who have been hurt by bullying. And we can educate our children that decency and courtesy to others still apply online.

For another opinion on the Phelps case, see Fast Company.

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