Suspensions, Expulsions and Social Media

A couple of weeks ago four secondary schools were in the news for all the wrong reasons. A number of students were punished in varying degrees of severity for behaviours that were of varying degrees of unacceptability. The reaction of the media, the students and their parents highlighted a lot of interesting debates, few of which mentioned the protection of the teacher from abuse. While teachers have never been immune to abuse from students, parents and the media, with the growth in popularity of social media, it has never been easier for a teacher or school to become a victim of bullying, abuse or other negative behaviours.
Of course, cyber-bullying is nothing new. Furthermore, cyber-bullying is not new with regards to teachers. One could argue that at school level, the infamous Rate My Teacher started a campaign that seemed to encourage the public victimisation of teachers. For a time, this was one of the most popular web sites in the country and much was made in the media surrounding it. I may have been lucky that the children I taught didn’t comment on me but some of my colleagues were upset by their name being dirtied in public view. Most of these teachers were good people, doing a good job. The fact that this was allowed to happen anonymously gave people the opportunity to vent their agendas without the need to be answerable for any inaccuracies or insults.
At this time in 2001, schools, in general, were not using social media as a tool. Many schools had web sites and email access. Some had used services like NetNanny or Phorm to try and prevent access to inappropriate web sites. However, there was little in the way of two-way social media interaction. This has now changed with several schools having Facebook, Twitter and Google accounts. The landscape has changed dramatically but ICT policies remain very similar to when they first came out in 1997, 6 years before Facebook was born.
Facebook is by far the most popular way that schools have engaged in social networking with dozens of primary schools opening Facebook Fan Pages. My school is one such school that has done this. The idea is that we realise that the vast majority of our parents have a Facebook account and most of them check it at least once a day. If we can provide our school news to the parents via the Facebook page, I believe there is a higher likelihood that they will be read. All our blog posts, noticeboard updates and news updates go to our Facebook page and parents can “like” or comment on them. In fact, it can be quite useful to see how many “likes” a post gets for our own “market research.”
However, similarly to what seems to have happened in one or two of the four secondary schools in the news, where Facebook was used as a tool to post negative, potentially bullying comments about schools, there is potential for the same to happen to schools with Facebook pages. If schools have not updated their policies to include social media, what can they do to prevent abusive messages going up on their page, or anywhere else on the Internet?
Some would argue that we should ban social media use in schools. However, as with almost everything else in life, I believe it all comes down to education. With regards to the Internet, there are several programmes out there for schoolchildren, Webwise.ie being the best known, which have been around for years and aim to help student make good choices about their use of technology to keep themselves and others safe. Any scheme must include how to interact on the web about your school and your teachers. I also believe there needs to be an update to any school’s Internet Acceptable Usage Policy as a matter of urgency.
Going back briefly to my own school’s experience, we have updated our policy to include social media. It can be found on the school’s web site under publications. My own personal motto is that everyone is trusted until they lose the right to be trusted and then they are never trusted again. If somebody posts something against our policy on our Facebook page, they are barred from it, forever. The short-term “thrill” that the person may get from a nasty update results in them being excluded from our Facebook page, cutting off an important avenue of communication but more importantly, cutting off the opportunity to be part of a happy online community.
I would be fully in favour of social media posts being used as part of a behaviour system in any school and enforced accordingly. We have already seen the drastic effects of cyber bullying on teenagers but schoolteachers are no different. Targeted abuse of a teacher is as unacceptable as it is for a pupil as it would be for anyone. Perhaps the world of celebrity has made us slightly immune to making horrible comments online until the insults result in legal cases or worse.
With regards to the students in the schools who abused teachers on Facebook, I don’t believe there should be any debate on the severity of the punishment. One should treat any online interaction in exactly the same way as one would treat interactions in the real world. If a group of students decided to sit me down in a room full of people and hurl abuse at me or threaten to abuse me, there would be no debate.  Perhaps we just need to accept that online abuse is already epidemic and we need to ensure that we are protected from it, whether we are teachers, students, celebrities or whoever.

Thanks to Alan Mackenzie for his advice when writing this article. Alan runs e-safety web sites at the following places:

 
 

0 thoughts on “Suspensions, Expulsions and Social Media”

  1. Interesting development in relation to this which may set a precedent: a Sligo solicitor has effectively managed to close down Rate My Solicitor after defamatory comments were posted about him on the site. More interestingly, he has been granted access to IP addresses and passwords of those posting the offending comments. Read about it here http://www.sligotoday.ie/details.php?id=20252

    • Thanks for the comment. Interesting about that solicitor and right too! Anonymous forms of abuse are even worse, in my opinion.

  2. It’s really good to know that Teacher’s are also being protected against social media bullying.  For many decades, the students and minors have been the priority when it comes to cyber bullying, glad to know that we acknowledge that our teachers are also human being capable of being hurt and abuse.

  3. Here’s the Teaching Council’s solution to it: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2012/0604/1224317208515.html

  4. initial reaction when I started reading this piece; ‘Why would a school want or need a facebook page???’

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