• Educating Gender

Inside and Outside: When Should Schools Get Involved in the Age of Social Media?


I am sitting at my desk in the nanosecond when I believe I am actually going to get some work done. It is 5pm and school has been finished for the day for over an hour. A face appears in the window of my office door. It is a mother waving her arms, with a smile on her face, trying to get my attention. The smile is not a, “how are you, it’s so good to see you” smile. Instead, it’s a “open this damn door right now or I’m coming in anyway” kind of smile.

I open the door and a smart phone screen is thrust into my face almost immediately. “I need to show you something,” says the out of breath mother of a 13 year old girl in our middle school.

Clearly.

I take the phone and stare at a screenshot of a text messaging conversation between at least five students.

“Read through it and you’ll get why I’m here,” says mom.

Her daughter, Diane, (not her real name) is standing up for one of her friends in the conversation. The friend has been called a slut and Diane is telling everyone to shut up, that they would never say this to her face, and posting such things is disgusting. The three boys in the conversation are either “laughing” or telling her to lighten up. The other girl is reaffirming the “slutiness” of the friend. Then the conversation ends.

I open the door and a smart phone screen is thrust into my face almost immediately. “I need to show you something,” says the out of breath mother of a 13 year old girl in our middle school.

“Jackie, not sure what I’m reading here,” I say. “The conversation happened last night. (I will come back to my saying this in a moment) Diane did the right thing. She stood up for her friend and understood what was wrong with the conversation. She’s a good kid. I’m not sure what you want me to do.”

“The chat is not the problem,” Mom says. “It’s what happened next.”

“Which is?”

“I can’t show you.”

“Why?”

“Because...”, she pauses. “It’s a picture of my daughter’s naked chest. One of the boys in the chat posted it right after she defended her friend.”

“No, you’re right,” I say. “You can’t show me.”

We stare at each other for an excruciatingly long 9 seconds.

“So,” she says. “What is the school going to do about it?”

Now would be an excellent time to revisit that throw away line to mom.


“The conversation happened last night.”


One of the toughest questions that school staff have to answer is under what circumstances and in what manner do schools respond when students, enrolled in their school, are involved in a situation that does not take place during school hours and not on school property? There are a couple issues to consider:


1. Parents completely dislike calling other parents about issues. It freaks them out and they often want the school to be the heavy.

2. Administrators do not want to cross these boundaries because then the list of issues that would need to be addressed by the school becomes endless.

3. Schools love to say that they are communities, but often have an inadequate toolkit to work with when addressing problems that do not occur at school.

4. Parents often want blood. They desire punitive action for the hurt caused to their child.


Where does school end and parenting begin?

And, the age of social media and technology has blown this conversation wide open. Parents often want schools to somehow do the parenting and explain to kids what they can and what they cannot do with technology. And schools, in an attempt to be 21st century, are handing technology to kids at increasingly earlier ages, even sending it home with children and then asking parents to supervise it, when they did not ask for this new level of conflict with their kids in the first place. School issued technology often feels like an intrusion into parents' homes with no real discussion concerning how the iPad, chrome book, or laptop fits into a home’s value system.

The example of Diane is neither a small issue nor is it rare. Sexting and then the fallout from sexting, revenge sexual harassment and abuse through the sharing of media, happens all too frequently and young people do not even realize that in many states in the US and other countries it has become a criminal offense. And without question, it is an experience that goes mostly in one direction: young men hurting women by sharing media (photos, videos, voice recordings) that were meant to be private.

School issued technology often feels like an intrusion into their homes with no real discussion concerning how the iPad, chrome book, or laptop fits into a home’s value system.

The other generational issue is that parents and adults have difficulty understanding why young adults would want to engage in these behaviors. Their instincts are to attach terminology like child pornography and sexual predatory behavior or psychological conditions such as low self esteem to what children are doing when sexting. It is hard for us to imagine that for young people who grew up with technology sexting could be perceived as a legitimate and understandable form of sexual expression. Do we want children under the age of 18 engaged in sharing these media productions with each other? The answer must be no. For all sorts of good reasons. But our response to it when it happens should shift.

Given our current attitudes toward sexting, the response often comes in the form of punishment, shaming, outrage, and for women in particular, reinforcing gender stereotypes that are harmful, even damaging. What a young female might perceive initially as an act of flirtation quickly, in the hands of adults, turns into labels, perceived pathologies, and stigmatizing. Suddenly the female’s actions become some broader indictment of moral decline, binary stereotypes of the good girl turned to bad girl, and ultimately the commodification of female bodies.

Do we want children under the age of 18 engaged in sharing these media productions with each other? The answer must be no. For all sorts of good reasons. But our response to it when it happens can shift.

So, what are schools supposed to do? What are their roles?

The first step would be to create and implement educational programs which acknowledge what is happening. We need to stop acting like ostriches sticking our heads in the sand imagining that this is all going to end well if ignored. And then, we need to create conversations with students where we take shame out of the equation, both in terms of ongoing educational initiatives and in responding to issues that arise in our communities. Our young people need to be supported and heard, through minor or major mistakes, emphasizing the potential for real hurt and pain that could be caused through such activities. Schools do need to respond, not with objectified understandings of their behaviors, but with love and a desire for them to become their best selves.


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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

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