Cellphone Taping a Classroom Threat

By Vaishali Honawar — November 06, 2007 9 min read
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This story was originally published in Education Week.

Videos of teachers that students taped in secrecy are all over online sites like YouTube and MySpace. Angry teachers, enthusiastic teachers, teachers clowning around, singing, and even dancing are captured, usually with camera phones, for the whole world to see.

Some students go so far as to create elaborately edited videos, shot over several days that use popular soundtracks and sound effects to poke fun at their teachers.

Now, concern is growing among teacher advocates that the proliferation of such videos is causing stress for teachers and some students, and could have a chilling effect on classroom discussions.

“It is disturbing to the educational process,” said David Strom, the general counsel for the American Federation of Teachers, because the fear of being taped could change how teachers interact with students.

What’s more, the trend could deter class participation by students “who wouldn’t want to speak up for fear of being mocked, if they felt their answers would be put up on the Internet,” Mr. Strom said. “The whole environment would be affected in a very significant way.”

The threat of exposure by cellphone cameras has potential professional, as well as emotional, consequences for teachers.

A teacher in Arizona was placed on administrative leave last month, pending an investigation, after A teacher in Arizona was placed on administrative leave last month, pending an investigation, after doing a cheerleading routine in class. Some students later said that she had performed the routine at their request, and that they had not found it offensive.

In another well-publicized case, in the Kent school district in Washington state, teacher Joyce Mong found herself the subject of a video titled “Mongzilla,” shot by students in her classroom over several days, which made fun of her appearance. Teachers say that knowing they may be photographed at any time and then see their likeness broadcast on the Web, is a new source of stress in their jobs.

Tales From U.S., Abroad

Almost every teacher interviewed for this article had a story to tell, either firsthand or involving a colleague. Teacher-written blogs are replete with such concerns and tales of students’ using now ubiquitous—and easily concealed—communications devices in class to take videos or still pictures.

Jay Rehak, an English teacher at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, said that he would be willing to have parents or others sit in his class and observe. But it worries him, he said, that someone might take a small slice of a 45-minute class and put up a misleading video on the Web.

“I check YouTube every once in a while,” Mr. Rehak said, to see if he’s ended up there.

He recalls that a colleague once became irate in class and was surreptitiously taped by a student. The video wound up on YouTube. “I wouldn’t appreciate it if it happened to me. … Everybody makes mistakes,” Mr. Rehak said. “Anyone can take a clip of anyone at the wrong time and make it look really bad.”

Paul Martin, a teacher at the private AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Canoga Park, Calif., said a student once taped him with a cellphone while he was teaching, and the video was posted online.

While there was nothing damaging in the video, he said, just the experience of finding it online was unnerving because he had no clue he was being taped.

“I went to the student and talked to him, and told him that I didn’t have the expectation of being taped,” said Mr. Martin. The student apologized.

With the pervasive presence of the Internet and forums such as YouTube, a free video-sharing site where users can upload and view video clips, it is not surprising that the issue resonates around the globe. Teacher videos can be found online from Canada to South Korea.

District Cellphone Policies

Boston: Phones have to be turned off and out of sight.
Chicago: Schools are allowed to make their own rules.
Dallas: Elementary students may not carry cellphones. Secondary students can, but the phones have to be turned off during class.
District of Columbia: Schools are allowed to make their own rules.
Milwaukee: Student cellphones are banned.
New York City: Student cellphones are banned.

SOURCE: Education Week

Teachers in those other countries have also raised their voices in protest against the student videos.

In Britain, a teachers’ union, the Professional Association of Teachers, last year called for a ban on You Tube, accusing the company of encouraging cyber-bullying. In a case in Scotland cited in the Guardian newspaper, students filmed a teacher in the classroom and posted it on YouTube with the caption “You are dead.” YouTube eventually took the video down.

In Quebec, Canada, four students were suspended after they taped a teacher yelling at a student.

In Finland, a student was found guilty of libel and ordered to pay 800 euros in damages by a court for putting a video online of a teacher singing with karaoke accompaniment at a school party. The video was labeled “karaoke of the mental hospital.”

Legal Questions

Here in the United States, legal experts say school districts tend to ignore videos that are simply embarrassing to a teacher, but do act when they find that the taping is a threat to the school or teacher or is disruptive to learning.

“There are a variety of issues with cellphones in school and what’s been posted,” said Tom Hutton, a senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “Did students make comments that were threatening? Was it a threat or was it a parody?” Districts tend to be more concerned when they see safety issues around a student-posted teacher video, he added.

The legal experts say they are unaware of any instances in which a teacher filed a lawsuit against a student and his or her family because of a video.

Teachers could potentially sue for defamation if someone selectively made recordings to cast them in a libelous light, the AFT’s Mr. Strom said. He also pointed out that laws in several states prohibit the recording of a person without his or her knowledge.

What complicates the issue for teachers who find themselves the unwitting subjects of their students’ handiwork are court precedents that can be interpreted to mean that teachers do not have privacy rights when they are in a classroom.

Thomas E. Wheeler II, an Indianapolis-based lawyer who is on the board of directors of the NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys, points to two lawsuits. In Evens v. L.A. Unified School District, students covertly taped a teacher’s classroom performance, which was later used against her in termination proceedings. The court held that a teacher must always expect public dissemination of his or her classroom communications and activities.

In the second case, Roberts v. Houston Independent School District, the court found that videotaping a teacher’s classroom performance by a school did not violate the teacher’s privacy rights.

Schools could potentially act in cases where they found that the students used school equipment to tape or to put videos online, Mr. Wheeler said, or if a video proved substantially disruptive to the school or the learning process.

“If a kid has a photo and posts it on YouTube, modified or unmodified, it is hard for the school to show disruption because of it. That’s First Amendment speech,” he said.

He added that in districts or schools that require students to turn off cellphones, students could be subject to discipline for breaking that rule.

In the case of the videotaping of Ms. Mong, the teacher from the Kent school district, the offending student was suspended, but not for his online criticism of his teacher. Instead, he was punished for the disruption that he and his collaborators caused by bringing a video camera into her class.

Limiting Usage

Districts have for years attempted to regulate the use of electronic pagers and then cellphones in schools because they can be disruptive, and now with the advent of the camera phones, are sometimes used to copy tests.

Most districts require students to turn cellphones off in classrooms. Some, New York City among them, go so far as outright barring students from bringing cellphones into classrooms. Such bans have attracted the wrath of parents, some of whom sued New York last year. The ban, however, was later upheld by a state court.

In Dallas, elementary students are not allowed to carry the compact phones. Those in middle and high school have to turn their phones off during school hours. Spokeswoman Sandra Guerrero said that if a student were found using a cellphone, the teacher could take it away. Repeat offenses could cause a student to lose his cellphone, after which he would have to pay a $25 fine to retrieve it.

Other districts allow schools to make their own rules. For instance, in Chicago, district spokesman Mike Vaughn said, schools are allowed to set their own policies on students’ cellphone use.

In the District of Columbia, said spokeswoman Mafara Hobson, schools are free to set their own rules, and have come up with interesting ways to deal with the issue. At Benjamin Banneker High School, for instance, a neighborhood grocery store allows students to drop off their cells before they enter school.

In the Contract

Teachers like Chicago’s Mr. Rehak say that rules regulating cellphones are not enough. School districts need to include specific guidelines in their student-discipline codes forbidding their use to photograph teachers.

One option, said Mr. Strom, the AFT lawyer, is for unions to bargain for protections in their contracts. “It is conceivable that … a local union could bargain that if a student takes a video in the classroom, the district would investigate and take disciplinary action against the student,” he said.

Many contracts already include provisions on when and why teachers are videotaped by administrators for evaluation purposes. Districts and teachers have sometimes worked with YouTube and other host sites to remove particularly offensive videos, Mr. Strom added.

As classrooms and students go more high-tech, a need exists to start a conversation between parents—who want children to have cellphones for emergencies—and teachers and administrators on students’ photographing of teachers on the sly, said John Wright, the president of the Arizona NEA. “It is something that needs to happen at the community level,” he said. The pros and cons of new technology in classrooms need to be thoroughly discussed to find a solution to the problem, Mr. Wright said.

Some teachers have found that educating their students about the issue can be helpful.

Kevin Metcalf teaches a Participation in Government class at North Rockland High School in Thiells, N.Y., in which he tries an experiment with his students. He asks them to whip out their cellphones—whose use is otherwise forbidden in the classroom under school rules—while he puts his head down on his desk for a second and acts as though he’s doing nothing. He then asks them that if they were to take a picture and put it on YouTube, what would people think of his teaching?

“They come up with answers like ‘lazy,’ and ‘doesn’t care.’ I say I would be judged by your peers on one second of a 45-minute class,” he said. The experiment, he said, brings home to the students how such an action could misrepresent the truth and have serious consequences for someone.

Despite the lesson, Mr. Metcalf said, he knows a student could catch him on camera at any time.

“My fear is one day I would be on a video,” he said, “but, hopefully, it is something I could explain.”

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