To the Editor:
Most of us have jumped on a social media bandwagon at one time or another only to realize later that we did not have all the information with which to make an informed judgment. I’ve shared things on Facebook that turned out to be outdated or inaccurate and then felt embarrassed that I was not more discerning at the time.
We are living in extremely polarizing times and our collective fuses are short. Many of the social media blunders we make have few consequences beyond our own embarrassment. Sometimes, however, there are things that happen online that go beyond the momentary discomfort of individuals.
In recent weeks, a petition asking for support of a student who got in trouble at MDI High School was circulated around social media in our community. The scenario as presented in the petition left a lot of people concerned and even angry about the school’s response to the situation.
Watching people I know and respect jump on the bandwagon of blame when they clearly did not have enough information to do so made me incredibly sad.
Obviously there are confidentiality issues which make a public retelling of the situation impossible and that may be why the story in the petition was accepted by so many people. It is not my job, nor is it my interest, to “set the record straight.” I do, however, see it as my responsibility to step up and defend people and institutions when they are being publicly accused of things that are simply not true.
People I work with were accused in the petition of being “motivated by their career advancement and would not really care about him [the student] anyway. They want to see him [the student] bleed.”
I have worked at the high school for a long time and can say with full confidence that the adults in that building care about every student who enters the doors. In particular, Matt Haney and Ian Braun are more student-centered than any people in education I have known. Suggesting they do not care about kids or any kid is appalling. How could the handling of a discipline situation, regardless of outcome, suggest motivation for career advancement?
A common theme I have seen is that “no one was hurt.” I find that to be a gross understatement of the seriousness of the situation. First of all, the student targeted in the incident was a person of color. Was that mentioned? Does that change any minds?
The potential damage to our students, who were minutes away from the most serious live lockdown situation, is intense, not to mention the direct damage to the targeted individual who would likely have resisted against an accusation he or she knew nothing about. If those are not perceived as serious consequences of a supposed harmless joke, them I’m baffled by our current society.
We teach our students to consider that anything they put out on the internet, regardless of intended audience, should be considered public. That is the reality of how social media and the internet works. I can believe that the subject of the petition did not intend for the “private joke” to be made public. The reality is, however, that it was made public, as it should have been.
If we are to teach young people “if you see something, say something,” then we cannot expect them to perceive the intended interpretation of each and every thing they see/read/hear and then decide whether to say something. We need them to be aware and report anything unusual, and we should thank them when they do just that. In addition, no matter how hard I try to put myself in a teenager’s mind, I cannot find anything normal or harmless about making a joke out of a mass school shooting that left 17 people dead and millions of people hurting and scared.
Then there is the issue of who was targeted in this “joke.” If the face of one of the handful of members of the private chat group was Photoshopped into the threatening statement, the likelihood of a misinterpretation would have been minimal. But that is not what happened, and that makes all the difference.
I have no desire to pass judgment on the young person who clearly made some bad choices in this situation, and I do not claim to know what the most appropriate punishment is. What I do know, however, is that there is a protocol that is being followed, and the administrators I work with are certainly not benefiting from the situation. In the end, it is the school board who will decide what is an appropriate response to the situation, not any individual administrator. Our community elects school board members, and we need to allow them to do their work.
What I have learned in these past weeks is that all of us — young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable — need to be reminded to exercise the same caution to things we see and share online. Perhaps there are some beneficial lessons wrapped up in this most unfortunate circumstance. I sure hope so.