The New York Times has a provocative examination of the ways cyber-bullying and abusive social networking sites and posts are challenging schools and courts. It also exposes a particularly cruel Ethics Dunce, Evan S. Cohen.
In 2008, Cohen’s daughter videotaped her friends as they mocked and made vicious comments, some of them sexual about another eighth-grade girl. Then Cohen’s daughter posted the video on YouTube, traumatizing its victim. The school was alerted by the devastated girl’s parents, and then suspended Cohen’s daughter for two days.
Daddy, however, is an attorney, and he knows overstepping authority when he sees it. He sued the school district, arguing that the school couldn’t reach into his daughter’s off-campus activities and punish her for them. Of course, he was right, and won the lawsuit. He also won $107,150.80 in costs and lawyer fees.
Fine. Schools have been trying to regulate students’ non-school behavior all over the country lately, and Cohen was right not to let a terrible precedent stand. With so much of the media and the public eager to blame schools for not stopping what parental discipline should address, schools are understandably afraid to say “this isn’t our responsibility” even if it isn’t. If the girl humiliated by Cohen’s daughter followed in the fatal footsteps of Phoebe Prince, the school knew it would be blamed. That’s a problem. Nevertheless, abusing power and attempting to regulate a students’ out of school behavior isn’t the solution.
So what has Cohen done to warrant “Ethics Dunce” status? Although his daughter offered to take down the video from YouTube, he told the Times that he insisted that she keep it posted, “as a public service” so viewers can see “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.” Another way of describing what he has done is to ensure that the embarrassment of the girl attacked on the video is ongoing, that the harm done to her by the video is maximized, and that Constitutionally protected speech is enshrined even though it is also cruel, hurtful, unfair and mean speech. He doesn’t care about any of that, apparently, or the feelings of his daughter. Would he allow such a video to remain on the web if he had the power to remove it and it humiliated his own daughter? Presumably not, but who can tell? It is clear that he cares more about making a legal point than protecting the sensibilities of a child.
Cohen, if he did care about the child involved, could take a little extra time and effort to be kind and apply the Golden Rule. He could preserve the video on a blog or web site specifically devoted to school abuse of power. Instead, he refused to fulfill his ethical obligation to accomplish his legitimate goals without harming others.
He may think the video will show what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills. Anyone who knows why it is still on YouTube, however, will know it shows that students who are gratuitously cruel get their training at home.