Twitter behavior a growing challenge for school officials

Twitter behavior a growing challenge for school officials

When in doubt, write it out.

But don't click "tweet."

That's the advice Armstrong Township Principal Darren Loschen gives his high school students when it comes to expressing themselves on Twitter.

"The advice is timeless. I think it does a lot of good to type out what you want to say when you have an emotion, look at it, read it again, sit on it for a while," he said. "Ask yourself, 'Do I really want to post that?' The idea is it's important to step back. We've all been there, we get angry or frustrated about something, but you have to think first. There are too many consequences not to."

And in the Internet age, those consequences can be very real: Loss of job, missed college opportunities, unwanted viral attention — or worse.

Last month, Oakwood High School had to inflate school security and suspend a female student after a couple of racist remarks were made on Twitter during the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., after the grand jury announced it would not indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black 18-year-old.

One read: "If you hate us so much GO BACH TO AFRICA. We should have never bought you." Another said: "I mean this wouldn't happen if black people wouldn't act like hooligans. We don't start a riot when white ppl die."

Within hours, her messages had been retweeted more than 3,700 times, mostly by outraged strangers who likely couldn't find Vermilion County on a map. BuzzFeed, with its 200 million unique monthly visitors, picked up the story and many other websites followed, further propelling the influence of two under-140-character tweets to heights district officials didn't have a specific policy in place to handle.

After being flooded with phone calls and bombarded on social media, officials responded and disciplined the student. She returned to classes for the first time Thursday, her father told The News-Gazette.

Like most area school systems, Oakwood has strict rules about what can be posted and accessed online using district-owned technology. But interim superintendent Keven Forney admitted schools are limited in their ability to reprimand students for bad behavior on social media on personal technology outside of school hours due to constitutional rights.

However, if a tweet disrupts the school day, something has to be done, he said.

"That is a determination that can only be made on a case-by-case basis," Forney said. "We will evaluate our response to this incident and determine if we need to initiate additional measures to address tolerance and inclusiveness, as well as the need for teaching additional awareness of the need for safe use of personal technology and social media.

"Schools can only provide training and resources to students. Each student still retains the freedom to choose how they use social media and other online methods to communicate to others."

So how do other area high schools compare? Going viral is uncharted territory for most school districts. And dealing with the repercussions of unexpected backlash on Twitter is just as foreign.

'We have to deal with it'

Loschen gets it: For many students, social media is the main way kids connect with friends today. That's why he invites a representative from the state attorney general's office to Armstrong each year to provide online and social media training to students and staff.

"They teach us about the realities of the Internet — how information about students can be found online, how quickly pictures can be shared, how things don't really disappear online even if you delete them," he said. "They do a nice job of answering the kids' questions, which are usually pretty interesting."

Armstrong's approach to social media education may be proactive, but, like others, the school lacks a specific policy about how to reprimand students for tweeting inappropriate content. The school has a policy on bullying (both in person and online) and cell phone use at school. But like Oakwood, the only time Twitter posts can be addressed is when they cause a disruption to the school day.

The same goes for Rantoul Township High School, where students can be disciplined only if a social media post disturbs class time or makes a negative connection with the school, said superintendent Scott Amerio.

"If a student is at home and says something negative on Twitter, that student still has their freedom of speech and they aren't on school property. Unless it causes a substantial disruption, we don't really have a right to discipline them," Amerio said. "But if we can draw a connection between what was said and the classroom or the school overall, then we do and handle disciplining on a case-by-case basis."

Even then, discipline always depends on what was said and when it gets brought to officials' attention, Amerio said. The same is true at public high schools such as Urbana, Champaign Central and Unity.

Private schools, however, can play by different rules.

At Judah Christian, for one, all students and parents must sign a contract at the start of the school year, acknowledging they have read and understand the school handbook, which includes rules about social media use. Judah officials reserve the right to address concerns and decisions that students make both inside and outside the school building.

"It's just the nature of the type of school we are," said Chief Educational Officer Michael Chitty. "We make it very clear that we are concerned about how kids behave outside of school, too. We don't police in a way that we're hacking into their personal lives, but if something comes to our attention, we investigate," he said. "We always tell the kids, when in doubt don't post anything that would distract from our reputation as a Christian school. That's a high bar for kids, but when you make decisions, the whole school is associated with that tweet or post."

When it comes to discipline over social media, Chitty said the situation is typically dealt with severely. Punishment can range from detention to suspension, even expulsion, depending on the content.

"If it's an inappropriate picture, that's a suspension or expulsion. If it's a tasteless joke, that could be an after-school detention or suspension," he said. "The rules apply, whether they did it in class or on a Saturday afternoon. If it becomes public, we have to deal with it."

'They are role models'

When the Oakwood student returned from her five-day suspension this week, she learned she'd been removed from the school's dance team, her father said.

Why the extreme? It may be because coaches, even those at public schools, often hold participants to a higher standard when it comes to representing a school's image online.

"Being a good teammate also means being appropriate online. That's what we tell our kids," said Chad Benedict, boys' basketball coach at Mahomet-Seymour High School. "Athletes are representing the school in the spotlight more often. They definitely should be just as cautious as other students, if not more."

Coaches at Mahomet-Seymour spend significant time each preseason discussing with athletes what's appropriate to post online and going over other team rules, Benedict said.

"Being a good sport involves being appropriate towards other teams online, too," he said. "We especially focus on our older athletes. Sometimes, they don't fully understand the fact that they are role models to younger players and even junior high students — they probably follow the older kids on social media, so we tell them what they tweet and post reflects who they are."

The same is true at St. Thomas More, where Principal Ryan Bustle and the coaching staff send athletes a clear message at the start of the school year: "People are looking, whether you know it or not."

Added Bustle: "Our athletes have the same rules as every other student, but there is more pressure on athletes. They are right there and more easily accessible than other students. Misuse of social media by teens is true at every high school, but we try to bring the idea home more by having the coaches talk with the kids about it each season."

'It's the parents' duty'

A cousin of Central freshman Cameron Robinson's didn't get into the college she wanted because of things she'd tweeted about her high school teachers. Ever since that happened, Robinson is extra cautious about his online image.

"Colleges and jobs are always checking up on that kind of thing, that's what my parents always say to me," said Robinson, whose parents occasionally keep up with what he tweets. "You really should always think twice about what you tweet. If you wouldn't want your parents to see it, then don't do it. A lot of people hide behind their Twitters to say things they shouldn't."

Urbana University High parent Zelda Gardner tends to check out the things her daughter posts on Facebook every couple of weeks. She believes a school's access to a student's social media posts should stop where education ends.

"I think kids can get caught up with peer pressure and choose to make bad choices. They need constant reminders that you do care about their image and that you are watching over them," she said. "I believe it's the parents' duty. Unless their usage of social media is related to a class project or a school event, I don't feel that the school should review anything your child has posted on social media."

Karyn Miller, a Central mom, also views monitoring her kids' posts as her responsibility — with a few exceptions.

"I would want to get the school involved if there was a bullying situation with my child, but to me that's my job to be watching out for that," she said. "But also, any time kids can get extra information about social media, it would helpful for them. I don't know if the school would take the time to do that, but I know there's kids that don't get that at home."

On the other hand, parents and schools keeping up with her Twitter feed can sometimes feel like a bit much for Mahomet-Seymour junior, Sidney Leskis. Her parents follow her on Twitter and Instagram, which helps her censor what she posts.

That's not a bad thing, she said, but it can sometimes feel like "an invasion of privacy."

"My parents follow me on Instagram, which doesn't bother me because it's just pictures, but they also follow me on Twitter and that makes me a little mad because if they don't like something I post, then they tell me to delete it," she said. "Usually, if I'm mad or just want to express my feelings, I post it on Twitter. ... It kind of makes me feel like they trust me less."

But, she admits, her parents have invested a lot of time in teaching her what's OK to put out there for everyone to see. That, she said, helped her establish guidelines for herself.

"Just always make sure you don't mind your enemies seeing it. Or your grandparents," she said. "Make sure your parents would approve. And your school.

"Online, I always try to make myself seem very free-spirited and open-minded person, I want people to enjoy my posts and think I'm beautiful inside."

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rsp wrote on December 07, 2014 at 8:12 am

Five days suspension and then kicked off the dance squad. It sounds like she was repeating lines I've read elsewhere and has little real knowledge of what it going on to cause these situations. Where is the teaching moment for this student? Where is the chance at reconciliation for this her? How does she fit back into the school after this?

alabaster jones 71 wrote on December 07, 2014 at 5:12 pm
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I doubt she'll have much trouble fitting back in at school.  It's a rural school, a solid majority of the students and staff probably agree with her views on blacks.


Although I certainly found her tweets to be extremely ignorant, I am also quite disturbed by the idea of a school being able to suspend students for things they post online outside of school.  Any discipline for social media misbehavior -- or ANY misbehavior outside of school, for that matter -- should be the sole responsibility of the student's parents or guardians.   I think the school severely overstepped its bounds here.