From the Principal's Office: 5 Guidelines for Rational School Leader Response to Social Media Issues

What should be a school leader’s response when a student uses social media in an inappropriate manner? This Winston-Salem Journal Editorial “More Education, Guidelines Needed for Officials, Students on Social Media and School Security,” makes the usual call for more rules and education about improper use of social media. But was this event a “social media problem” or was it “a behavioral or crime problem?” I think the answer to that question is at the heart of how a school leader should respond to a student’s misuse of social media.

The scenario described in the Winston-Salem Journal, states that a 16-year old student used another student’s Facebook page to pose a threat to students and staff at her high school. She was arrested for making a false report and communicating threats, and as the editorial indicates, she faces some serious prison time for her actions which is as it should be. It should be clear though, Facebook does not in any way make this crime any different than using a handwritten note or some other media to make that threat. The crime was not the use of social media. The crime was the action of making threats which is illegal. Making this distinction is at the heart of how a school leader should respond to these kinds of incidents.

If social isn't the issue, what kind of guidance is there for school leaders in situations where students use social media in inappropriate ways? Here’s some suggestions.

  • Deal with the criminal or inappropriate action, not the media. The issue was not whether the threat was communicated through Facebook or not. The issue was that a student made threats to students and staff and under North Carolina law that is illegal. It is important that school leaders focus on the illegal behavior or the problem behavior, not Facebook. Bullying is wrong. Improper communications between a teacher and student is wrong. Whether it occurred on Facebook or the phone is irrelevant except as simple facts in the case. School leaders need to keep their eyes on the behavior and not delude themselves into thinking that if Facebook would go away, then the problem would not have happened.
  • Follow the same procedures you would follow after finding a threatening note pasted to a restroom wall. Again, the focus is on the criminal activity, not the media. If procedure demands that parents be contacted when a threat to students and staff is made, as soon as the threat is discovered, make that contact. It is important that guidelines focus on the threat, no matter how that threat was communicated. Equally important is that our response always focus on the behavior at issue.
  • Take the lead and educate students so that they understand that criminal behavior (and inappropriate behavior) on social media has the same consequences as it would have anywhere else. Also, educate students on appropriate and inappropriate uses of social media. Students need to understand that their values and morals do apply in online spaces. They need leadership from school administrators in the form of a clear understanding that behavior online that is illegal or improper is still illegal or improper. Don’t make the issue murky by focusing entirely on social media.
  • Be cautious of the usual “knee-jerk” reaction of blaming Facebook and other social media. Social media has undoubtedly complicated our jobs as administrators because of its powerful opportunities to connect our students and staff. But school leaders should not argue for bans because of these complications. Our responsibility is not to make our own jobs easier at the expense of trying restrict the freedom of others. Instead, we need to be reluctant to infringe on students’ and staff’s right to engage in free speech in online spaces. School leaders need to stop looking for “social media boogeymen” and deal with the behavior at issue.
  • Educate yourself about social media. School leaders who deal with social media issues need to make sure they themselves know as much as possible about the media. Knowing how it works and how students and others use it is a key to making sure that responses to problems involving social media are rational.

School leaders do need some guidance on how to respond to inappropriate and criminal activity on social media, but that guidance needs to be based in reason. A rational school leader response to incidents like the one described in the Winston-SalemJournal needs to focus on what the real problems are. The real problems are the illegal and improper behaviors, not the media.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.