Facebook Wars II: More School Abuse of Power and Privacy

"Hello? ACLU? Anybody there?"

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.”

23 thoughts on “Facebook Wars II: More School Abuse of Power and Privacy

  1. As nobody is surprised, I agree wholeheartedly with this post. While school power is limited in principle, it is only limited in practice if we fight back when schools overreach.

    You also made a good point about the ACLU. This is exactly the type of battle they should be fighting.

  2. Preach on, Brother Jack.

    Seriously, when you said, "this has got to stop," you said it all.  What’s next, expelling a student who’s father is a candidate for public office for the wrong party?

    Oh, wait

    Well, whether that story is true or another WND legend, it illustrates the problem.  Schools are becoming so politically correct that they have assumed the right to use any pretense to deny someone an education, even when such things have no connection whatever to performance, or even behavior at the institution.

    Spying on children during their hours away from school is inexcusable.  Why don’t we just turn our kids over to the state and let them have all the headaches as well as they authority to discipline them?  Not only that, since when did depriving a child of time being educated result in a more well-rounded child?

    The new political correctness is far more insidious than the old, and there seems to be no end in sight.  Thanks for highlighting this.

  3. A number of years ago, while extracting myself from a bad relationship, a therapist friend told me that the more healed and “normal” I became, the more outrageous and pathological my ex-partner’s behavior would be, in a psychological attempt to pull me back into the relationship.

    I sometimes think the same thing applies to social relationships and organizations. As they lose their relevancy and people withdraw and move on to new social structures, those invested in the old organizations thrash wildly to maintain an ever crumbling status quo.

    Its not a perfect “model”, but seems a possible indicator that things ARE changing, and not always doomed to failure. Rather, the systemic failure (like the bizarre behavior in the educational world these days) is indicative of an approaching tipping point. Homeschooling is on the rise, online educational opportunities are multiplying, etc., so the pressure is mounting for society as a whole to rethink and restructure how we educate our children and who controls it.

    In the midst of escaping from revolutionary Russia, through pre WWII Germany to the United States, my grandfather remarked to a friend, “it is an interesting time we are living in!” The same would hold true now, I think. Doesn’t mean its COMFORTABLY interesting, or that our focus, attention and guard should drop. Just saying 🙂

    • It is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

      Speaking of curses, there is a wonderful Yiddish curse:

      “May all your teeth but one fall out!”

      Why all but one?

      “So you can still get a toothache!”

  4. Mary,
    Your analogy was amazing (really). It would seem we’ve shared similar experiences yoking ourselves to the mentally unstable and have come out with similar insights. In other words, keep talking in the future .. the world could sure use your thoughts.

    —–

    Curmudgeon,
    Or the worst Yiddish curse of all:
    “May the people who dance on your grave get cramps in their legs.”

    (Not that it has anything to do with the topic at hand)

    -Neil

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