Clash of the Ethics Dunces: The Web-shaming Student and the Angry Principal

This doesn't make either of you look very good, guys....

This doesn’t make either of you look very good, guys….

Back when hitch-hiking was in vogue and both hitch-hikers and drivers were being warned about the various horror stories that the transportation transaction had led to through the years, I used to wonder if a murderous hitch-hiker ever got into the car of a homicidal driver, and what ensued. This tale from Riverdale High School (yes, the same school Archie and Veronica go to, apparently), in Georgia is a little like that, though no slaughters were attempted. An ethically inert school principal grossly abused her power in response to a gratuitously cruel student. I suspect this happens rather more often than my hitch-hiking hypothetical.

Student Keandre Varner, on a lark, decided to check and see if a mug shot existed for his high school principal, Jamille Miller Brown.  Sure enough, he found one, so he thought the fair, kind and responsible thing to do was 1) post it on Instagram, and 2) suggest that the mugshot arose from a DUI arrest.

Once again, we see the despicable practice of web-shaming, as Varner chose to inflict public embarrassment on his principle just because he could. This serves no good purpose, except in the rare situation where a principal has withheld an arrest for, say, eating a killer hitch-hiker from the school board or something similarly alarming, in which case additional exposure would be called for. (Bringing the information to the attention of the school system, however, not posting it to a social network, would be  the ethical and responsible way to handle this.) Varner also chose to libel her, by opining that she had been arrested for something she had not; in fact Ms. Brown had been arrested for missing a court appearance that concerned a speeding ticket, which may only impugn her scheduling skills, but not her good citizenship.Two seconds of considering the Golden Rule should have dissuaded him from this stunt. Of course, his school probably is afraid to teach the Golden Rule, for fear that it would be accused of promoting religion.

So much for Varner, who was both mean and reckless with the reputation of another. Now on to Miller’s unethical reaction: she tried to have Varner arrested. The police, to their credit, refused: there was no crime here. Perhaps her theory was that she would give the kid a mug shot of his own, so there! Whatever her theory was, it was wrong, and so, I think, was her fall-back position, suspending him for “spreading misinformation.” [UPDATE: In a response to this post below, Ms. Miller adds some detail to this event, and also asserts that the claim by Varner that she tried to have him arrested is untrue. I have more reason to doubt the press and the student on this aspect of the account than her, so she has the benefit of the doubt. She also says that the account that claims she threatened other students is inaccurate.]

This is using the over-reaching anti-bullying measures currently popular (and unethical) in the schools to punish students for conduct that doesn’t involve in-school activity. Schools keep going further and further with this, when it should never be done at all: in Kansas, a student was recently suspended for criticizing the high school football team on Twitter, which is probably considered more serious than attacking a principal given the current warped priorities in society, but the suspension was still unconscionable. Student activity on social networks is none of the school’s business, just as what students say at slumber parties is none of their business.  It is wrong when students are punished for writing that Suzy is fat on Facebook, and wrong when Suzy is punished for saying her teacher is a bitch on Twitter. It is equally wrong when a principal suspends a student for a personal social networking affront like this.

The principal’s most severe remedy is in the law of defamation, if she can make it stick: falsely telling the world that a school principal was arrested for drunk driving is grounds for a lawsuit, though not necessarily a winning one. Miller using her power as principal to deal with a personal quarrel, however, is an abuse of power. She also, reportedly, threatened other students with suspension if they didn’t delete her mugshot from their phones. Now she is a bona fide victim of the Streisand effect: the story is on the web, everyone knows she has been arrested (though not for drunk driving), and she has, in effect, web-shamed herself for not handling a manageable crisis with restraint and proportion. She should have asked the student for a retraction and an apology, and, if necessary, contacted his parents.

She started out as the victim in this story, and managed to turn herself into the villain.

___________________________________

Sources: c/net 1, 2

Graphic: Universal Monster Army

22 thoughts on “Clash of the Ethics Dunces: The Web-shaming Student and the Angry Principal

  1. And let’s hear it for the parents who so diligently advocated for their little scholar. Shouldn’t they have just sent him to time out for a few days instead of going after the principal? Or maybe a public speaking class so he’d learn to at least consider the possibility of not using “like” as every other word while speaking in front of a television news camera? Sure, the principal was a dope, but shouldn’t the parents be more concerned with raising their own little intramural dope?

  2. Once again, we see the despicable practice of web-shaming, as Varner chose to inflict public embarrassment on his principle just because he could.

    The mugshot was due to an actual arrest. Have you changed your policy on web shaming to not include law breakages? Yes, the student was in the wrong here, but, according to you, it seems the student is wrong for messing up the reason for the arrest, not for posting it.

    • Come on, you’re just picking a fight. I haven’t gone into detail on the illegal act webshaming exception, but clearly, old arrests with non-public figure are ethically off limits. This is like posting photos of registered sex offenders around the neighborhood. I have presumed that webshaming a criminal is properly used when the criminal activity has not been addressed or is relevant to an individual’s job and unknown to those who have a right to know. If she had been arrested for child-beating and was running a day care center, for example.

      And an arrest is not the same as conviction or proof positive of a crime, so this doesn’t even apply to my exception.

      • Jack,

        First, I remember that your exception was about illegal conduct, not just convictions.

        Second, what you’ve said now has completely gutted your previous bright line illegal conduct exception. From the main Audrie Potts thread:

        “I already said that criminal conduct breaks the wall—that is where society has made the decision for us. Break the law, you’re a criminal. It’s public.

        Emphasis is mine. The prior statement I can find is: “The threshold is crossed when something is so bad that the law takes over […]”.

        You also said: “Widespread shaming for such things, however, is crime-level punishment, and that means it’s unfair and unethical.”

        I objected to that statement: “Why is widespread shaming only a crime-level punishment? And again, talking about ethics on a crime scale is inappropriate. It’s also weird as it’s done here. Crime levels go from loitering through torture. Crime-level is meaningless.”

        Note that I said that BEFORE your emphasized comment. You drew a bright line at legal issues: “Break the law, you’re a criminal. It’s public.” You didn’t think my complaint mattered.

        Did you come around to my point of view and not tell me?

        • Is crime-level too vague? Probably. I think for most people it is clear that dropping a candy wrapper out a window or pulling a tag off a mattress is not what I mean. I meant to include really, really bad acts that for various reasons are not crimes, and actual crimes that either are not being sufficiently punished to discourage the criminal and others, are not being punished at all, or are significant enough that as many people should know about them as possible.

          Obviously it is easier to define what shouldn’t be the object of web-shaming than what should, which is a good thing: the presumption, I believe , ought to be in favor of not web-shaming….and I believe the trend today is exactly the opposite. Is there an important lesson to be taught? Can society benefit from the example? Is something more and better being accomplished than embarrassing and stigmatizing one individual for a genuine mistake or impulsive act? Does the punishment fit the crime? Is the harm from the web-shaming worse than the act that prompts it?

  3. Interesting side note: This same principal testified just months earlier that it was her opinion that the school’s assistant principal used unnecessary excessive force to break up fights between students in October of that school year. He was subsequently fired. He appealed and it seems that he got his job back. Considering that this principal wanted the young man arrested for spreading misinformation, I’m not sure she was qualified to give an opinion on what type of force would be appropriate. Then again, perhaps she was the expert witness on such matters? If SHE says it was excessive, it was excessive.

  4. Please forgive me for any errors as I’m typing from my phone. I’m the principal referenced in this article.

    Although I find your article humorous, the facts are not correct. This student was never threatened with arrest. Additionally, no other students were threatened with suspension. I shared my arrest with my staff and with select students prior to this child’s posting. When students asked me about my mugshot individually, I shared the facts with them. I also disclosed details of my arrest with our Local School Advisory Council prior to the Instagram posting.

    If you reference the initial posting/media coverage of this story in Riverdale, you will see that they clearly presented a seventeen year old’s version of events.

    I’m in the process of addressing this matter. There are other significant details to this story that were never presented.

    Thank you to the responders for your support and for seeing the root of the issue.

    By the way, which picture represents me?

    • Which do you like? I’d pick Godzilla, myself.

      Thanks for the clarifications, which I have referenced in the main post. This is always helpful, and a boon to readers. A reliable news media would be better, but as you know, we don’t have that.

    • The opposite of a crazy legal threat. Well done.

      IUnfortunately, I see a couple things that seem off or missing in your response.

      * You didn’t deny the reason for the student’s suspension. Was that an oversight or intentional?

      * You reference that the story was solely from the point of view of the teenager, but don’t explain why that was. Were you not contacted about it? Was other staff not contacted? Did you decline to answer questions? I can see that there may be issues with discussing student conduct with the media, but the ethical issues seem to be waved when the student brings it up in the media first.

      * The claim that the story was solely based on the student’s view of events, but the reason for the suspension came from the student’s mother (who claims to have written documentation). Also, the claims that other students were threatened with suspensions came from other parents. Don’t you think this suggests the media presented more than just the point of view of a student?

      * You say the student was never threatened with arrest. Did you make a report to a police officer or discuss the legality of this student’s conduct with a police officer? Did you reference the police or a specific person or position known to be a police officer with the student?

      • You bring up some great points. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to them at this time. I will follow up in the near future.

        If you are an attorney, I would love to get some legal advice from you.

        • I am not an attorney, but I’ll take that as a compliment. If I was an attorney, though, I think it might be a bit of an ethical lapse for me to give you specific legal advice on your situation if I’ve already been commenting on your situation.

          As an aside, while not answering the questions looks like a dodge, I’ve never seen a lawyer complain that their client gave out too few details publicly, or stopped talking too soon.

    • Ms. Brown-

      Thank you for your comments. At this point, I have no idea what really took place but I will back you up in saying that you are not dodging tgt’s questions. All the questions are good questions but I understand that you cannot answer any of those questions due to confidentiality laws. You cannot answer those questions even IF the student brings it up in the media first and even IF the student is not telling the truth. Also, I have no idea if the media asked for your side of the story pertaining to the discipline and events regarding this student and others but I will back you up and say that if the media did ask for this information, you could not legally give out this information. Even if the student went to the media first. And even if the student is not telling the truth. Sounds like you have had a very interesting year.

      • That’s an understatement!!!

        Again, I’m greatful for your comments and the different perspectives.

        I will keep you posted. There have been many postings, but this is the one that compelled me. I had great dialogue with my daddy about it!!!

  5. Jack, thank you for allowing me to share the full story. Please see below.

    Dear Ms. Turnbull (Managing Editor WSBTV):

    To put Mr. Jones’ lax reporting in its proper context, I will outline the salient facts seriately.

    I. Salient Facts and Reckless Reporting Conducted by Tom Jones

    On or about January 11, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was ticketed in Clayton County for speeding. She was given an original court date of February 14, 2013. On February 14th, Mrs. Miller-Brown appeared in court and the matter was rescheduled for March 21, 2013. Mrs. Miller-Brown failed to appear on March 21, 2013 and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. On or about March 29, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown’s license plate was randomly run by Fulton County Police. The bench warrant appeared and she was arrested. She was released shortly thereafter and the charges were dismissed on or about May 2, 2013.

    On or about April 2, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown, through her attorney, informed her employer of her arrest for failing to appear on the speeding citation. On or about April 30, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown informed her employer, all of the leadership staff, including all department chairs, coordinators and managers of her arrest. Subsequently,
    students at her school also learned of her arrest. On May 6, 2013, one of Mrs. Miller­ Brown’s students informed her that she had received an Instagram message from a classmate, Keandre Varner. The student further informed Mrs. Miller-Brown that Mr. Varner had disseminated the identical text message to students in and outside of her school. Mr. Varner’s Instagram message read as follows: “Your school ain’t turnt, unless your principal is turnt. She’s a Stoner. DUI.”

    After reading Mr. Vamer’s post, Mrs. Miller-Brown directed Mr. Varner to her office. Present in her office, in addition to Mr. Varner were Mr. Tommy Ector, athletic director, who also has administrative responsibilities and the School’s Resource Officer, Deputy Edwards. Mr. Varner admitted he posted the Instagram as a result of a dare from another student. Mr. Varner also admitted that he utilized school property to disseminate the Instagram during official school hours. Mrs. Miller-Brown advised Mr. Varner that she was arrested for failing to appear on a speeding violation. She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.

    Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested. In addition, both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to suspend Mr. Varner for posting her booking photograph.

    Following his admissions, Mrs. Miller-Brown telephoned Mr. Varner’s mother, Ms. Nakesha Thomas. Ms. Thomas was advised of her son’s conduct and improper use of school property during instructional hours. Ms. Thomas was further advised that her son was being suspended for four (4) days based on his improper conduct. Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards, along with Mr. Varner, were present when the telephone call was made to Ms. Thomas.

    On the following day, May 7, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was informed by Ms. Arlecia Battle, secretary to Mrs. Miller-Brown’s supervisor, that Ms. Thomas registered a complaint regarding the length of the suspension. Mrs. Miller-Brown agreed to reduce the out of school suspension to two (2) days with the remaining two (2) days to be served in school. On or about May 8, 2013, Ms. Battle, in a meeting with Mr. Varner and his mother, communicated the modified suspension to both of them. Mr. Varner, in the presence of his mother again admitted to using school property without authorization during instructional time. He also admitted that he stated that Mrs. Miller-Brown was a “Stoner. DUI.” Neither Mr. Varner nor his mother ever alleged or otherwise suggested to Ms. Battle that Mrs. Miller-Brown ever threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for posting her photo.

    Mrs. Miller-Brown never met Mr. Varner’s parents. Her only communication was the single telephone conversation with Ms. Thomas on or about May 6, 2013. Mrs. Miller-Brown had no communication at all with any other parent or guardian regarding her arrest or photo. On or about May 8, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown met with large and small groups of students throughout the day explaining the facts that led to her arrest. She took full responsibility for her failure to appear in court and her subsequent arrest.

    At approximately 2:30pm, on May 8, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was advised by staff that Mr. Varner was contacting the media regarding his suspension. WSB-TV had a news truck parked across the street from the school. On or about May 9, 2013, WSB-TV with sensational teasers, broadcast Tom Jones’ report. Mr. Jones reported Mr. Varner’s lie that Mrs. Miller-Brown “tried to get an officer to arrest Mr. Varner, but the officer refused, so he was suspended.” Prior to publishing his sensational and false report, Mr. Jones never attempted to contact Deputy Edwards to confirm the accuracy of the accusation. To date, neither Deputy Edwards nor Mr. Ector has been contacted by Tom Jones or anyone else at WSB-TV News.

    Mr. Jones exacerbated the situation further by incorrectly publishing “[o]ther parents told him their children were threatened with suspensions for having the mug shot in their phones.” Mr. Jones did not and cannot identify any parents making such allegations because Mrs. Miller-Brown did not threaten any student for having her photo in their phones.

    More disturbing is the chilling fact that Tom Jones failed to verify any fact or source. He did not even seek to confirm the exact Instagram message Mr. Varner published. This simple act of ethical journalism would have provided him a substantive basis to challenge Mr. Varner’s bogus account. Ethical and professional journalism standards militate that journalists confirm the accuracy of a story by at a minimum, interviewing witnesses with first hand information. Again, Tom Jones never spoke with Deputy Edwards or Mr. Ector to determine what was said by Mrs. Miller-Brown and/ or Mr. Varner. Instead, Tom Jones sought to lower journalism standards by publishing misleading and unsubstantiated accounts with the intended objective of preying on the public’s insatiable appetite for the sensational.

    It was Tom Jones who conveniently failed to investigate to know that it was Mrs. Miller-Brown who unilaterally informed the school system of her arrest. She also informed all of her leadership staff of her arrest and the circumstances of the arrest. Finally, she met with students to inform them of her arrest and used her misfortune as a teachable moment. Tom Jones, however, failed to mention these facts because he was not interested in presenting hard facts. Tom Jones could have easily determined that Mr. Varner was not credible by simply speaking to Ms. Arlecia Battle. Mr. Varner admitted to Ms. Battle that he used school property to disseminate the defamatory remarks that Mrs. Miller-Brown was a “Stoner. DUI.” Ms. Battle could have confirmed that neither Mr. Varner nor his mother contended that Mrs. Miller-Brown threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for disseminating her photo.

    • Lots of good information, but there are at least a couple of obvious issues still:

      1. Threat of arrest:
      Present in her office, in addition to Mr. Varner were Mr. Tommy Ector, athletic director, who also has administrative responsibilities and the School’s Resource Officer, Deputy Edwards.

      Why was a police officer present? That itself, is a threat of police action.

      She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.

      That’s a passive aggressive threat of legal action with a police officer present.

      Further, did you at any point reference this present police officer? Did the officer say anything like “this wasn’t criminal” or “I can let him go this time”? Did you ever ask the officer a question or suggest something to him that he rebuffed? For instance: “What are we going to do about this, Deputy E?” — “I think you’re going to have to punish him.”

      2. Defamation law issues:
      She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.

      IANAL, but this looks very much like a spurious threat. You’re a public official, so you’d have to cross a very high hurdle to prove defamation. That you knew this was done on a dare and the student thought it was true…you’re cooked.

      Also, you were hurt by the mean spirit of the picture? Saying this before the punishment suggests the punishment was based on your being hurt. Oops.

      2. Assumption of motives:
      * “Tom Jones sought to lower journalism standards”
      * “… because [Jones] was not interested in presenting hard facts.”

      You don’t have evidence for Jones’ motives. These statements make me doubt your “facts” pretty strongly.

      3. Random attack on Jones:
      It was Tom Jones who conveniently failed to investigate to know that it was Mrs. Miller-Brown who unilaterally informed the school system of her arrest.

      Jones’ story was about the actions against the student, not the arrest. This information is spurious.

      4. Lack of logic:
      Ms. Battle could have confirmed that neither Mr. Varner nor his mother contended that Mrs. Miller-Brown threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for disseminating her photo.

      This doesn’t make sense at all. Clearly, they did contend such to the reporter. That they didn’t contend such in front of Ms. Battle doesn’t mean they don’t contend such.

      5. The still unexplained problem:

      In addition, both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to suspend Mr. Varner for posting her booking photograph.

      Following his admissions, Mrs. Miller-Brown telephoned Mr. Varner’s mother, Ms. Nakesha Thomas. Ms. Thomas was advised of her son’s conduct and improper use of school property during instructional hours. Ms. Thomas was further advised that her son was being suspended for four (4) days based on his improper conduct. Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards, along with Mr. Varner, were present when the telephone call was made to Ms. Thomas.

      So… he wasn’t suspended for posting the booking photo. He was suspended for posting the booking photo using school resources and accidentally misinforming about the principal.

      4 day suspension for a use of Instagram and a rumor. The first offense is maybe detention worthy. The second? Correction on what occurred; nothing more.

      If a student had posted an Instagram picture of a teacher next to a whale with the caption: “Saves Whales” (when the teacher was actually whaling) during school instructional time, would that student be suspended for 4 days? No chance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.