The schools have a valid concern and legal obligation to maintain discipline and protect their students while in their care. But in this tricky area, especially when damages for infringing on students’ rights can exceed the annual salary of much-needed teachers and other educational resources, schools cannot afford to guess. Until the law becomes better settled, the schools need to be careful before acting, seek knowledgeable legal counsel, plan ahead, and get parents involved early.
So what’s a principal to do? Talk, educate, and mediate…it’s what they do best. Bring in the students and parents. Create peer counseling and mediation boards. Set policy. Create awareness programs. Principals shouldn’t panic or react in a knee-jerk manner. I would suggest they take their lead from a very experienced school superintendent in New Jersey.
A teenager in that high school, after getting angry with certain teachers and administrators, lashed out by posting some pretty vulgar and insulting things about them on a personal website. He wrote the site from home and posted it online. It wasn’t posted on the school’s server, but was available to everyone with Internet access once they had the URL. URLs of classmates’ sites get passed around quickly, and many of the kids in the school accessed the site from the school’s computers.
When the word got back to the teachers and administrators, they were understandably furious. They sought help from the police, who threatened to charge the teenager with harassment (but they wouldn’t have been able to make that charge stick).
Everyone involved seemed to lose their head, but the superintendent managed to keep his. He recognized that this wasn’t a school disciplinary matter and that the parents needed to be involved. He called in the parents, who were appalled and took this situation as seriously as they should have. Together they worked out a suitable apology and a way to handle the case without blowing it out of proportion. The press had a field day. This superintendent stood firm against the anger of the teachers and the pressures of the community. He was right.
Months later he shared something with Parry. He told her that he had met the young teenager at a school event, and the student apologized once again. He also thanked the superintendent for handling the situation with grace. The boy had acted out in anger and hadn’t thought about the consequences of his anger. Eventually, even the teachers came around. We could use many more like him.
This advice works just as well when cyberbullying or social-networking use is discovered. A good principal sets the tone of the school, hopefully with wisdom, kindness, consistency, and respect.