In January, Ethics Alarms weighed in on reports from Illinois and New York about students being disciplined by their high schools for postings on Facebook about the sexual proclivities of female students in the community. The ethics verdict: the schools were abusing their power and the students’ privacy:
“When did schools suddenly acquire disciplinary control over what students do when they aren’t at school? There is no question that the websites involved were inappropriate, disrespectful, cruel and hurtful, just as the rumors and insults included in high school graffiti were, in those glorious days before the internet. Students so abused need to complain to parents, and parents need to talk to the parents of the offending students, and if they can’t or won’t address the problem, then the courts or law enforcement may need to become involved.”
The rationale offered by the schools at the time was that the students had violated rules against cyber-bullying, that ever-vague plague, although there is no more legitimate authority for a school to decree what a student can say about another student on a personal website than there is for a school to restrict what a kid can say at the dinner table.
Naturally, when an institution exceeds the natural limit on its authority, there is nothing to keep it from even more egregious abuse. Thus two Georgia students were just suspended and one another was expelled for negative Facebook postings about a teacher.
Are schools worried about cyber-bullying of teachers now? Well, too bad. This is an even worse abuse of power by the schools than the January incidents, and those were bad enough.
Twelve-year-old Alejandra Sosa called one of her teachers at Chapel Hill Middle School a pedophile, and got the honor roll student suspended for 10 days. She may be expelled. William Lambert III, a seventh grader, was suspended for calling the same teacher a rapist.
A third child was expelled for posting that the same teacher is bipolar. (Questions abound: why is it worse in Georgia to be called bi-polar than to be called a rapist or a pedophile? What is it about this teacher that inspires his students to slander him?) None of this is appropriate behavior, but it isn’t school behavior. The students are accountable; their parents are accountable. The students owe the teacher an apology, but the school has absolutely no right, legally or ethically, to punish students for what they post on Facebook from the privacy of their homes.
This has got to stop. It is wrong, it is unfair, it is a breach of freedom, autonomy and privacy.
I see no reason, if the extension of school authority off of school grounds is allowed to continue, why the next school won’t suspend its students for making disrespectful statements about President Obama on Facebook, or making derogatory statements about illegal immigrants, or passing along politically incorrect jokes, or disapproving of the Ground Zero Mosque, or posting cross-hairs as a graphic, or using the CNN-banned word “crosshairs”, or criticizing the teachers union.
What I wrote in the January post applies with even more force in the wake of the Georgia story:
“A school has no more justification for suspending a student based on what he or she posts on a Facebook page than it has to punish a student for an insult he shouts at a fellow student in his back yard. Yet apparently no one sees anything wrong with this trend. Integrity question: where is the American Civil Liberties Union? Will it really just sit on the sidelines as government funded schools start shutting down Facebook sites and suspending students based on what they type in their own homes?
“… Schools punish kids for drawing pictures of guns, based on “no-tolerance”; do we really trust them to decide what is acceptable discourse over the internet? Schools have a role in teaching students the social skills and ethical values that will help them see what is wrong with slandering others on-line. But school administrators across the country show wretched judgment dealing with the problems in their own realm; I don’t want them meddling in mine, or the life of my child when he’s not in class….
“Schools needs to know their place and function. When they take over the role of parents, no matter how serious the problem they are trying to address, they merely provide incentive for lazy, inept parents to duck their responsibilities, and make it more difficult for diligent, competent parents to perform theirs. The Facebook pages are bad, but the long term consequences of allowing schools to have power over our children 24 hours a day will be worse. This is misplaced responsibility, wrongly assumed accountability, and an abuse of power and common sense.”