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Social Media, Sarcasm and Schools: a toxic cocktail for students

I recently completed a six week class online in Social Media. The class is the reason I started a blog in the first place, my original posts here are for a fictional tomato company and were completed as part of an assignment. While I learned some new skills, what the class really encouraged me to do is think. The explosion of social media has happened at a rate that far exceeds the ability of businesses, organizations and individuals to respond to it in a consistent manner. I am fascinated by the sheer speed that anything from a cat video to a rumor can be spread. Part of that is terribly exciting and another aspect is terrifying.

A week ago in Minnesota a situation came to light in the more traditional media. On an unauthorized page used by students of an area high school someone had posted an inquiry as to whether a specific student had “made out” with a certain teacher. I put the quotes around the two words because that is how it has been written in all print media regarding the situation. In what he later claimed to be a sarcastic reply he responded “Yes, actually.”

After a parent reported the possible indiscretion the teacher was thoroughly questioned, as was the student. Each denied that any sort of inappropriate activity had occurred. She clearly had been at risk of losing her job and facing legal action and he ultimately was suspended for a period of time ranging from 7-10 weeks and ended up transferring to another school. The student had attempted to locate the teacher and offer an apology the next day, not realizing the severity of what had occurred and that she was not at school.

Numbers were way up at the school board meeting last night with many wishing to weigh-in on the punishment not fitting the crime for this scholar and student athlete whose flippant reply didn’t fit any of the traditional school policies. The student has garnered support from fellow students, parents and other community members and there is an even greater outpouring of sympathy for the 28-year old teacher who has not been identified. I have been surprised that the name and photographs of a 17 year old minor have been used on radio, TV and by news sources in print and online. It has been determined that he violated no law. The chief of police at one point had mistakenly indicated that he might be charged with a felony. The student has suffered panic attacks as a result of the turmoil he unsuspectingly brought upon himself. Rather than he or his parents attending the school board meeting last night, he was represented by one of his three attorneys.

I look back to my own youth in Minneapolis and know that my classmates and friends from neighboring schools could easily identify some teachers and even a school counselor who were engaged in inappropriate relationships with students. Some were relocated but most stayed put. I am in no way implying that our failure to address actual events in that era was a better way of handling things, I point it out as a dramatic example of how far the pendulum has swung in a single generation.

I think the school board could have taken this opportunity to address the issue and use it as a starting point to craft some school-related guidelines or work with the Minnesota State High School League to establish a standard expectation for the students whose activities they govern. I do understand those who believe it is important that the student grasp the severity of the situation. Yet, in an era of outsized concern over bullying, it seems ironic that it would be the school administration that for one non-violent act that included no weapon or alcohol/drug violation they have basically ended this students school and athletic participation for spring 2014. What if the student had not been a popular student with supportive parents? Even confident teens can be thrown off course when thrust into unexpected situations and it strikes me as irresponsible to push a child  in this way.  Those actions did nothing to benefit the teacher who is the unfortunate victim of innuendo for no other reason than the fact that she chose to become a teacher.

For the great amount of news coverage this has received locally there are a few things I am interested in knowing that have not been discussed. I want to know if the parent who first reported it to the school administrators wishes they had dealt with it differently. I want to know if the teacher and student would have been questioned about the accusation if he had posted no response. I would also like to know if the two words he had chosen had been “No comment.” whether he would have been punished the same. My final question that will likely remain unresolved is whether or not the student who initially asked the question, implying that perhaps there was something between the teacher and student was called in for questioning. My take on that is it was just a sarcastic query that resulted in a sarcastic response, the sort of thing that a catcher might say to a batter in the era of The Sandlot. The difference being that such a comment would simply drift away on a breeze but for Reid Sagehorn this story will follow him for as long as search engines allow, far beyond his 18th birthday.

This is what happens today to kids when they make a judgement error. All accounts mention Reid as a good student who was both a football and basketball captain. Obviously he is respected by his peers. The district has verified that a written apology was made to the teacher. His attorney pointed out last night that Reid was in fact the only party who had issued an apology in this situation.

My sensitivities after taking a social media class have helped me better grasp that immediate means of sharing a message call for immediate measures to be in place to address things when a situation goes awry. A sledgehammer is not needed to kill a fly but you need the right tools in place.

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