Special Report
School Climate & Safety

On Social Media, Principals Fight Losing Battle to Keep Up With Students

By Benjamin Herold — April 17, 2018 6 min read
Freddie P. Alarcon, the principal of Corporate Landing Middle School in Virginia Beach, Va., said social media “is the world our teenagers are living in.”
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More than half of U.S. school principals say they’re extremely concerned about children’s use of social media outside of school, but just 14 percent describe themselves as “very prepared” to help students use social media responsibly.

That’s according to a new national survey of school leaders conducted by the Education Week Research Center, which found the fears are particularly acute in middle schools.

The scope of the challenge is evident in the 67,000-student Virginia Beach, Va., district. There, 11 middle schools received threats of violence, many made by students on social media, in the weeks following the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“This is the world our teenagers are living in,” said Freddie P. Alarcon, the principal of Corporate Landing Middle School, where a student was charged by police with “threatening harm by use of electronic communication” after one of the incidents.

Experts say it’s no surprise principals feel overwhelmed.

Long before Instagram and Snapchat, the teenage years have been a developmentally sensitive time when students take risks, navigate fraught social relationships, and try to carve out their own identities. Now, though, social media is an integral part of those often-messy processes, giving children previously unimaginable power to document and broadcast their every action and thought.

The result is that schools face a steady stream of disruptions caused by everything from shooting threats to cyberbullying to nude photos. For principals, that means a constant low-level headache, which periodically escalates into crisis.

Part of the challenge school leaders face is that there’s no set checklist they can follow in order to proactively keep students safe on social media or respond effectively when things go sideways.

In response, a growing number of companies are pushing technology solutions, often based on surveillance of students’ social media.

Advocates and researchers, meanwhile, suggest a focus on “digital citizenship,” building a positive school climate, and counting on students to monitor each other.

Add it all up, and the nation’s school leaders are in an unenviable position, said Amanda Lenhart, the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a Washington think tank.

“I think our expectations of principals have become increasingly unreasonable,” Lenhart said.” They’re fighting a losing battle.”

One thing principals can’t do is ignore social media.

“It has a tremendous impact on the day-to-day culture of a school,” said Daniel Kelley, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the leader of Rhode Island’s Smithfield High School.

The worry for school leaders isn’t so much about how students use social media during the school day.

The challenge is that what happens on social media on weekends, evenings, and on the school bus often spills over into the school day, said Anne Collier, the founder of iCanHelpline.org, a social-media helpline for schools.

Most often, she said, that includes problems that never make the local news.

“There’s nothing surprising in what principals bring to us,” Collier said. “It’s bullying, harassment, fake profiles, mean comments, sexting, and stupid pranks.”

For principals, the challenge of addressing such problems begins with identifying where students are actually leading their digital lives. Many of the platforms and services young people use—such as Snapchat, Instagram, musical.ly, WhatsApp, Kik, and LINE—may be unfamiliar to the average principal.

And even if school leaders can see what’s happening, they must navigate murky legal waters before reacting, said Sonja Trainor, the managing director for legal advocacy at the National School Boards Association. Courts have generally ruled that the First Amendment protects students’ speech on personal social-media accounts used outside of school, Trainor said, unless that speech infringes on other students’ rights or is likely to cause disruption inside school. Figuring out where that line is drawn can be tricky.

It’s also important for school leaders to recognize just how difficult it is for grown-ups to fully grasp the context that helps explain what’s taking place on social media, said Lenhart of New America.

“You’re not the audience for what is happening on these platforms,” Lenhart said. “Your ability to understand the full interpersonal space you’re digging into is really limited.”

Companies such as Geo Listening and Social Sentinel promise to use algorithm-driven technologies to monitor students’ public social-media posts for everything from suicidal thoughts to school-shooting threats.

A growing number of districts—including Virginia Beach, which is engaged in a “limited pilot” of such a service, according to Spence, the superintendent—are giving it a try.

But school leaders should be skeptical that such companies will actually deliver what they promise, said Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty & National Security Center at the Brennan Center for Justice, which has studied the use of such tools by law enforcement.

There’s limited evidence such surveillance-based approaches are effective, Patel said. They generate a tidal wave of information, including lots of false positives (including flagging a post in which a particularly good pizza was described as “the bomb”).

Snapchat is a popular app among today’s students.

And there’s every reason to believe that the stereotypes and attitudes that have contributed to racial disparities in student discipline for offline behavior will end up baked into social-media-monitoring tools, Patel argued.

“It’s put forward as a panacea,” she said. “But everything I’ve seen about social-media monitoring leads me to believe it’s prone to mistakes and not reliable at doing the things we want it to do.”

Instead, Patel and other experts agreed, principals are better served by proactively teaching responsible student social-media use on the front end and encouraging a culture of peer monitoring and reporting on the back end.

There’s a ways to go before that vision becomes a reality. According to the Education Week survey, more than a third of principals described themselves as “a little prepared” or “not at all prepared” to identify such strategies.

But resources—including a popular K-12 digital-citizenship curriculum from Common Sense Education—are available.

And Collier of iCanHelpline.org said school leaders can take lessons from the broader bullying-prevention field. Getting students involved as part of the solution—by reporting problems to adults and serving as social-media interpreters, for example—is seen as key, she said.

“Social media is much more about people than technology,” Collier said. “Kids are your best source of information.”

Ultimately, that approach is where Virginia Beach schools have placed their biggest bet.

It starts at the beginning of each school year, when administrators remind students about the consequences for such actions as cyberbullying and sexting.

At Corporate Landing Middle School, such efforts continue throughout the year, said Alarcon, the principal. Digital citizenship is playing a big role in advisory and library time, he said, and it’s also a big part of the curricula used in the school’s technology education classes.

Virginia Beach also has a districtwide campaign called “Be Social. Be Smart. Be Safe.” One big goal is to encourage students and parents alike to report problematic content—and to provide clear, anonymous ways for them to do it.

In that context, argued Spence, the superintendent, the rash of recent arrests of students for making social-media threats against their schools—before any real violence was committed—is actually a sign of progress.

“We would not have known about any of these things if people hadn’t felt comfortable reporting them to us,” Spence said. “Our culture of saying something is working.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as On Social Media, Principals Struggle to Keep Pace

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