Out of School Behaviors: A Principal’s Responsibility? is an Alumni Op-Ed written by Karen Siris, Ed. D., Class of 1972.
I have never regretted my decision to become an elementary school principal. However, the responsibility of being in loco parentis to over 300 children each day is not without out its demands. With the advent of social networking, the challenges have increased. The question becomes, “What is a principal’s responsibility, both morally and legally when he or she becomes aware of inappropriate off school behavior?
Educators are faced with a legal challenge when our interactions with our students involve their first amendment rights for freedom of speech. The situations become even more challenging when students’ inappropriate off school behaviors are brought to our attention.
The legal test comes from a 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which a school suspended students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School). In Tinker, the United States Supreme Court defined the constitutional rights of students in public schools by overturning the students’ suspensions (Id at 514). They did say, however, that when a student’s speech interferes substantially with the school’s educational mission, a school may impose discipline (Id. at 505-507). The problem with this decision lies with the interpretation of how “interferes substantially” is defined, since there is subjectivity in this criteria. Tinker is now being cited in off-campus cyber-bullying and YouTube cases when a disruption is caused in the school building due to the aftermath of these incidences.
As principal, I feel a responsibility to deal with bullying and cyber-bullying incidences that are brought to my attention. It is my moral obligation to ensure that my students meet their maximum cognitive potential and, in order for them to do so, their social and emotional needs must also be met.
The Internet, with its many variations of social networking, has brought new ways for children’s learning environments to be “substantially disrupted.” Students sometimes come to school distraught over comments that have been posted on internet sites and that have been forwarded to friends, acquaintances, and countless strangers. They may have been taunted about their weight, their height, their skin color, their sexual or perceived sexual preference. False rumors, altered pictures, and YouTube videos mocking them may have been posted and gone viral.
The aftermath of these behaviors may appear on school campuses the next day. They may be reported to the principal through a concerned parent or by the students themselves. In many cases, the students are too distraught to function in class, and through a caring adult’s observation and inquiry, they may share the reason for their distress.
In almost all cases, the parents of the perpetrators and certainly the perpetrators themselves believe that their off-campus behaviors should not be addressed in school. They believe, as referred to in Tinker, that their first amendment rights have allowed them these behaviors and that sanctions may not be imposed by their school teachers or administrators.
Although the law does not make it easy for school officials to become involved in inappropriate and dangerous off-campus behaviors, it does not take away a principal’s moral responsibility to keep students safe both physically and emotionally, so they can learn to their full potential. It is within a principal’s jurisdiction to educate our students as well as their parents. In today’s society, both must learn the dangers of inappropriate Internet usage. Parents should understand the importance of proper supervision and students must be taught how to use social networking in ways that will enhance rather than destroy their lives.
Restorative justice intervention is most definitely allowable in our schools. Helping students recognize their behaviors that have caused harm, and holding them accountable for finding a way to right their wrong is not only allowable under the law, but in many cases preferable to harsh consequences. It holds the key to giving principals the authority to intervene in dangerous behaviors that are causing their students emotional and long lasting harm. School officials should not be scared away by the parameters of laws that do not allow us to impose consequences, but instead should find effective alternatives to helping our children and families recognize the dangers of bullying and cyber-bullying behaviors and correct them through instruction on positive and constructive Internet use, as well as through restorative justice strategies. Hopefully, schools that value caring, kindness, and respect for all will serve our children well and help them enter society with a greater chance of leading productive and rewarding lives.