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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Averting Tragedy in a Digital World

By Matt Levinson — October 08, 2010 5 min read
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The tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped to his death after his roommate broadcast his encounter with another male student via webcam, has prompted deep questioning about the intersecting roles of technology, cyberbullying, education, privacy, and civility.

It is a clear case of a violation of privacy, for sure. Tyler should not have had to worry about his roommate sharing the most intimate details of his personal life beyond their dorm room walls with a webcam. The tools of Twitter and Facebook sped up the public humiliation that Tyler endured, but it was the actions of his roommate that set the tragic turn of events in motion. In a response on NPR, sociologist C.J. Pascoe explained the role of new media in expediting public exposure: “Instead of having to be present for this public humiliation, we can spread it to larger and larger audiences.”

In New Jersey’s Newark Star-Ledger, Harvard pediatric neurologist Francis Jensen noted, “The tools today are so much more powerful. Teenagers have never had this level of power. Pressing a button makes something private, global. It’s not the classroom anymore, it’s the world.”

Who is to blame here? Is it television for the proliferation of reality TV shows? Is it new media, like Twitter and Facebook, which facilitate information sharing in milliseconds? Is it parents, or secondary, middle, and elementary schools for failing to educate? How far back do we have to go to get to the root of the problem that exploded with the death of Tyler Clementi?

One thing is clear. There needs to be massive attention given to early education of children in schools, and in the home, regarding issues of privacy, sharing, new media tools, and those tools’ power to expose if not used properly.

At the time of Tyler’s death, Rutgers was launching its Project Civility campaign to raise awareness and sensitivity within the campus community. This is a noble endeavor to undertake, and it should continue. But it’s too late. Creating positive, civil cultures should begin with our youngest students. Schools need to address incidents of bullying and cyberbullying in partnership with parents so that our students receive consistent messages at school and at home. And this work should begin as early as possible.

In one California classroom, a creative 1st grade teacher uses Flip video cameras to record students working out conflicts and having talk-it-outs. She then assesses student progress over the course of the year through these digital portfolios. She can also show students how their awareness and understanding of their peers and different situations have changed. She shares these digital conversations with parents at conference time, and the home-school partnership is cemented through this work.

The middle grades can often be the most challenging for kids and parents to navigate. At the Nueva School in California, where I am the middle school head, we are fortunate to have a nationally recognized social-and-emotional-learning, or SEL, program. This program weaves its way through all aspects of school life from prekindergarten to 8th grade, and it involves students, teachers, and parents. In addition to proactive curriculum development and parent education evenings, the SEL teachers provide students with the confidence and language to become their own advocates in challenging social situations. In the middle grades, when cyberbullying or other online incidents happen outside of school, we encourage families to come in and share their struggles at home so that we can work with them to help build a healthier community.

Communities need to view school and home as one entity, particularly in the 24/7 new-media age in which we live. What happens in one setting spills into the other, and often plays out for us and our kids in unimaginable ways.

Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, has just released its digital citizenship curriculum, which frames issues of privacy and cyberbullying. Aimed at the middle grades, this curriculum can be used by schools to inform kids about the ethical challenges of digital media. Schools need to embrace and develop programs to start the conversation around privacy and cyberbullying, and they need to involve parents in this dialogue, so that kids receive consistent messages in school and home.

At the high school level, the work gets trickier, though there are opportunities to enlist peer leadership in the process. Many schools have older students serve as mentors to younger students, or even provide fully developed peer leadership programs, where older students guide groups of younger students. These programs offer the opportunity to build in discussions of cyberbullying and privacy, and there is no more powerful conversation than a peer-to-peer interaction with thoughtfulness, reflection, and community. Students can create “fishbowl” scenarios for other students to observe and discuss. They can debate appropriate solutions, and examine actions that escalate and de-escalate situations. These scenarios should grow right out of authentic student experiences.

The least effective approach to take is one that is top down. School principals cannot just stand up at an assembly and condemn cyberbullying and privacy violations. Yes, school principals need to take a stand on cyberbullying and privacy, and students need to know that when they approach school administrators, action will be taken to maintain safe spaces in schools. There is nothing worse than a student reporting an incident and having the school not listen or follow through on resolving the situation.

Let’s hope that the death of Tyler Clementi galvanizes our schools and parents to band together to create and foster healthy digital spaces for kids. It’s happening in piecemeal fashion at the moment in individual school settings, but there has to be a comprehensive, national effort to be proactive with digital citizenship education. Students need to be directly involved in scaffolding the issues, to help us build programs and curricula to sustain positive cultures in schools. The stakes are too high for them not to be.

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Middle School at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., and author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.
A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week

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