Student Discipline: Sexting, Video Chats and Your Child’s "Permanent Record"
In February, a 10th grade student of the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York was snowed into his hotel, along with his classmates, during a field trip to Arlington, Va. The boy went down the hall to another room, leaving his backpack with his laptop behind. The boy’s friends, who stayed in the room, recalled the possibility that pornographic photos of a female classmate, taken during a video chat, may have been saved on their friend’s laptop. Doing what boys do, they riffled through the bag and found the photos. Word spread and parents were notified. The 16-year-old boy, son of Herbert and Jodi Nass, who both attended Horace Mann, was suspended by the school for three days. The incident would go on his permanent record, which would be visible to colleges when he applied next year.
The New York Times told this story, the story of parents so upset by the disciplinary findings of their son’s school, that they filed suit. The Nasses claimed the school did not rightfully discipline their high schooler and should have instead placed the blame on the boys who intentionally opened their son’s bag without his knowledge or permission.
The Nass’ story is not so different from the stories of parents here in Maryland. Mr. Nass, an attorney, and his wife were just more prone to speak out for their child.
These disputes typically involve the usual list of issues seen in most school discipline cases; things like improper schoolhouse activity, school field trip misconduct, bullying and student harassment. But the landscape has changed radically form the old days of student expulsion and suspension. The new twist in these cases is derived from the instantaneous, always-on, digital communication tools that kids use with great dexterity every day.
Any number of legal issues including free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press as well as contract rights, minor’s incapacity to consent and a host of others all cloud the issue of school discipline in cases of Internet misconduct. Digital violations often become a quagmire of legal and educational issues when inappropriately applied to student misconduct for offenses committed in school and out.
Take sexting, for example. An inappropriate text message or photo can be sent from any phone anywhere. It could be sent by a 16-year-old sitting in his house or by that student during third period English.
The problem with rigid, literal adherence to school regulations without real life consideration of consequences to students, results in even greater harm to the individual student involved and oftentimes to the student population in general within a school.
Certainly the strict application of well reasoned school disciplinary regulations is appropriate and quite necessary in most instances. However, not every case of sexting should be treated as if it were a danger.
A dose of professional reason by educators via open communication between parents and staff is the real solution.
As parents, we should trust the school in which we send our child to every day. We should rely on it and its staff to respond professionally regarding issues of discipline and allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct on campus and off involving our children and their school. In my experience, when a parent sees the school administration has kept an open mind and listened to all sides in a display matter involving their child, rarely if ever is there an issue with the outcome and resolution of the case.
However, when the school administration goes overboard as unfortunately happens all too often in such cases, or when the administrator bows to the wishes of more vocal bystanders result can be very different.
Our high-speed, digital, always-on lifestyle is here to stay. But sadly, the technology we depend upon and use every day has made it possible for our kids to run into trouble with no intention of doing so. So as it follows, the schools rules and laws must be molded to properly evaluate and govern situations of sexting and cyber-bullying. When it appears that your child is about to be suspended or worse yet, expelled, representation by legal counsel can be very helpful, and ultimately necessary.