School Climate & Safety Opinion

Averting Tragedy in a Digital World

By Matt Levinson — October 08, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center How Much Educators Say They Use Suspensions, Expulsions, and Restorative Justice
With student behavior a top concern among educators now, a new survey points to many schools using less exclusionary discipline.
4 min read
Audrey Wright, right, quizzes fellow members of the Peace Warriors group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Wright, who is a junior and the group's current president, was asking the students, from left, freshmen Otto Lewellyn III and Simone Johnson and sophomore Nia Bell, about a symbol used in the group's training on conflict resolution and team building. The students also must memorize and regularly recite the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Six Principles of Nonviolence."
A group of students at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School participates in a training on conflict resolution and team building on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Nearly half of educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said their schools are using restorative justice more now than they did five years ago.
Martha Irvine/AP
School Climate & Safety 25 Years After Columbine, America Spends Billions to Prevent Shootings That Keep Happening
Districts have invested in more personnel and physical security measures to keep students safe, but shootings have continued unabated.
9 min read
A group protesting school safety in Laurel County, K.Y., on Feb. 21, 2018. In the wake of a mass shooting at a Florida high school, parents and educators are mobilizing to demand more school safety measures, including armed officers, security cameras, door locks, etc.
A group calls for additional school safety measures in Laurel County, Ky., on Feb. 21, 2018, following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 14 students and three staff members died. Districts have invested billions in personnel and physical security measures in the 25 years since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Claire Crouch/Lex18News via AP
School Climate & Safety 'A Universal Prevention Measure' That Boosts Attendance and Improves Behavior
When students feel connected to school, attendance, behavior, and academic performance are better.
9 min read
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas, on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe for Education Week
School Climate & Safety 4 Case Studies: Schools Use Connections to Give Every Student a Reason to Attend
Schools turn to the principles of connectedness to guide their work on attendance and engagement.
12 min read
Students leave Birney Elementary School at the start of their walking bus route on April 9, 2024, in Tacoma, Wash.
Students leave Birney Elementary School at the start of their walking bus route on April 9, 2024, in Tacoma, Wash. The district started the walking school bus in response to survey feedback from families that students didn't have a safe way to get to school.
Kaylee Domzalski/Education Week