Students Should Be Self-Policing

While acts of cyberbullying and threats made to students and staff are clearly beyond the means of a self-policing student body, a level of student-to-student trust and responsibility should exist.

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Members of the administration have recently taken disciplinary action against students for comments made on Facebook or other social media platforms. In one case, a teacher rescinded his offer to write a student a college recommendation after being shown screenshots of the student’s online comments regarding his teaching style. In another, a student was suspended for sharing a vulgar tirade about a teacher written by multiple students on a Google Document in a group chat. None of the other contributors to the document were punished.

In both instances, student online activity was brought to the attention of members of the staff and administration by other students.

These two examples fall within the morally complicated gray area of online communications in our school community, but they invite us to consider when online activity warrants discipline on behalf of the school administration. While acts of cyberbullying, and threats or hateful speech leveled at students and staff, are clearly actionable, we believe that for the most part, students deserve online privacy. We advocate a self-policing student body, but this would depend upon a large measure of student-to-student trust and responsibility.

Students have come forward to faculty to show them offensive commentary that the staff members would not have seen otherwise. In most instances, showing something vulgar and immature to a teacher only serves to needlessly hurt the feelings of that individual.

Even within last year’s Spectator Editorial Board, a student in our Facebook group chat group informed the administration about another student who made a joke about being drunk. This anonymous betrayal had serious consequences for that student’s extracurricular life, and made the entire chat distrust that community. We question whether or not the choice to intentionally report a fellow student, especially for comments that are not targeted towards any individual in malice, can be made in good conscience.

The school administration sees this issue as more straightforward. They consider posting in a private Facebook group as equivalent to making the same comment in person. “There should be no gray area as far as the expectations. Both the expectations and the consequences should be black and white,” Principal Eric Contreras said.

Though the boundaries between a person’s real life and his or her online life can seem blurry, the administration also feels that students should realize that there can be real-world consequences to their online actions. “It’s actually not a gray area. [...] It’s a perceived gray area. But it’s not for colleges and it’s not for employers. And it’s not per the law for schools, either,” Contreras continued.

Exercising caution about online content is common among students, even if many are not always successful in doing so. However, most students are not familiar with the actual standards of the Code of Conduct for NYC Schools, which deem that any comments, including oral, written, or online, that involve the school community are subject to the jurisdiction of the school administration. This means that if members of the school community are being discussed or might be affected by a discussion, the school technically does have policing power.

But when it comes to certain student spaces, such as online Facebook advice groups, such a conservative definition of online privacy, combined with a lack of trust between students, ultimately undermines one of the purposes of these online communities: to give and receive honest feedback about teachers, whether or not this feedback is something teachers would want to read about themselves.

The self-policing nature of online communities has proven effective in the past. Last year, posts in Dear Incoming groups about a masculinist club's interest meeting sparked heated debate, which devolved into vapid comments targeting the club’s two founders. Former Student Union (SU) President Tahseen Chowdhury (‘18) temporarily and rightly turned off all posting in the group.

Though the administration was eventually involved in this incident, this type of student policing embodies the level of regulation and independence from the administration that social online forums warrant. Leave it to students to self-report and to monitor each other, without getting the staff involved. Unless a Facebook post or personal message constitutes a serious threat to students or staff, Facebook groups and Messenger chats should remain specifically student spaces.

The act of self-policing extends to individuals. There is a difference between insulting a teacher’s teaching style and insulting a teacher’s character. While it is acceptable to say that a teacher’s method simply didn’t work for you, it is inappropriate to attack a teacher’s personal life and invade his or her privacy. As we expect teachers and staff to respect these online spaces as personal and therefore private, we should also respect their personal lives as out of bounds for critique or commentary.

Before you report, consider that by reporting, you might be compromising the honesty of our online conversations. If you are reporting something with good intentions, consider who is being hurt now, and who will be hurt once you report. Decide whether the consequences of reporting are for the best overall. And if your intentions are sadistic, competitive, or selfish, reflect on those intentions, and decide what you want your student body to look like.