The recent news coming out of California's Albany High School is a perfect representative case study on how educators and parents are abdicating their inherent responsibility to coach students on the safe and productive use of social media. To make matters worse, each group is blaming the other for this blatant omission. The logical solution is a partnership between parents and schools to ensure students are properly equipped with the social media skills they will need to succeed both academically and professionally in the digital age.
To summarize, four Albany High School students were suspended after liking racist posts on Instagram. The Instagram images that were "liked" were of African-American female classmates and the African-American coach of the girl’s basketball team. According to the school district, the images included nooses drawn around necks of some of the photographs and side-by-side photos with apes.
Parents of the suspended students are suing the school claiming the suspensions violated each student’s right to free speech because Instagram is not owned or operated by the school.
The parents of the suspended students are arguing that "the school has essentially over reached their bounds and is trying to regulate what is happening in the home." Conversely, schools are also facing lawsuits from parents whose children killed themselves after online bullying by other teens. "Many parents have come to hold schools responsible for online actions by students that often occur outside of the school day." Parents cannot have it both ways.
Albany High School's defense rests on providing a safe and non-intimidating environment for all students. A parent of one of the students attacked on Instagram believes that because pictures of his daughter and other kids were posted on Instagram, it was appropriate for the school district to cast a wide net in disciplining those involved.
What is happening at Albany High School is representative of what is happening at a majority of high school communities across the country. Social media has become a ubiquitous and powerful communications platform that must be mastered and understood. Handling misuse by way of student suspensions, parental lawsuits, finger-pointing and abdicating responsibility will not solve anything and will only serve to make matters worse.
When a school community proactively and purposefully teaches students that their personal social media posts, likes, shares and comments are public and will reflect upon themselves and the groups and organizations they represent, students will be better able to assess the risks and rewards of their online activities. When students receive social media coaching to understand that everything they post to social media is permanent and discoverable by anyone in the world interested in finding it, students will be better able to assess the risks and rewards of their online activities. When students know that colleges and employers will be viewing their social media activities to assess their character, credentials and credibility prior to making decisions, students will be better able to assess the risks and rewards of their online activities.
Regardless of the outcome of the parental lawsuits, the students suspended by Albany High School will be negatively impacted by their digital footprint when applying to college and finding work. Neither colleges nor employers will be impressed by candidates expressing appreciation of racist images or the notoriety that followed.
Fingers can be pointed and lawyers retained but it is time for educators and parents to understand that social media is here to stay and the digital portfolios students build, either intentionally or accidentally, will impact their academic and professional aspirations in significant ways. Social media education for high school students and educators is the answer and communities must invest in teaching students responsible social media use.
The events of Albany High School are taking place all other the country. This is not a police matter. This is not a legal matter. This is, at its core, an educational matter. Proactive decisions must be made, and a social media coach must be consulted. Until then, young people will be squandering opportunities. This needs to stop. This needs to stop now.
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