The decision last week by the board of management at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, to expel four students who posted abusive comments about their teachers on Facebook has raised a number of crucial issues for social media users, schools, the Department of Education, social media networks and internet service providers.
While there are views regarding the severity of the decision to expel the pupils, the story raises a number of serious questions:
- Why have social media networks failed to set any boundaries for what can and cannot be said online?
- While there are many young social media users who have failed to grasp the power and permanence of the online written word and the implications for privacy, reputation and libel, surely there are those who do understand its implications and who have used it to devastating effect? The suicides of Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince and Leanne Wolfe in Cork were a direct result of insidious cyber-bullying.
Boards of management and the Department of Education have a responsibility toward the reputation of their staff but also a responsibility toward the health and safety of their young students.
This is a story about malice, about reputation, about values, boundaries and responsibility. So what can be done?
- The Department of Education should revise and update its guidelines on bullying;
- It should also introduce a social media education programme for teachers;
- Consider the introduction of a new social media training programme as part of the school curriculum;
- The Board of Management need to create environments that value and teach tolerance and respect for all and introduce mandatory Codes of Conduct for the behaviour of teachers, students, general staff and visitors, if they have not already done so. They need to create models of positive behaviour clearly demonstrating that there is no tolerance for certain behaviours including a zero tolerance approach toward bullying, cyber bullying and sexting.
- The Department of Justice, in consultation with the Departments of Education and Communications should draw up legislation on cyber-bullying.
- The Department of Education, along with the Department of Communications, should also consider the setting up a forum involving parents associations, school boards of management, school principals, teacher’s unions along with the key players in the communications industry – internet service providers, social media networks, mobile phone operators and SMS service providers to discuss ways in which the communications industry can play their role in combating cyber-bullying and sexting.
If left unaddressed we are allowing teachers and students to live in an unsafe school environment which is open to a constant unhealthy 24/7 threat. It is the least we can do in commemoration of the tragic suicides of Clementi, Prince, Wolfe and all others who continue to be tormented by this insidious and malicious form of intimidation and bullying.