On Monday I attended a seminar led by adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg on cyberbullying. The one thing that really stuck with me from the day was the problem of boundaries.
Once, the distinction between "school issues" and "home issues" was reasonably clear-cut. If it happened in the school (or on the way to or from school), e.g. a fist-fight, it was a "school issue". Otherwise it was a "home issue". (Yes, I realise that it was never that clear-cut, and there were grey areas, but for most students most of the time, the distinction was a fairly clear and obvious one.)
Enter the Internet, email, instant messaging, mobile phones, SMS. Suddenly the distinction between school matters and home matters is lost in a techological miasma.
Little Miss X and her friends are cold shouldering Student Y at school, but also sending spiteful text messages late at night - is the text messaging a school issue, even though it happens outside the school grounds outside of school hours? The answer would seem to be "Yes" - the actions outside the school are intimately connected to the actions and relationships inside the school, and schools that decide not to deal with these things run the risk of being sued for neglecting their duty of care. BUT (and it's no small 'but') we are then confronted with students and parents who want to argue that the school should not be involved (these are of course the same parents who wouldn't hesitate to pursue legal action if if were their child on the receiving end and the school decided not to act).
So the boundaries have been blurred and we now have students and their parents who want to draw the boundaries where it suits them.
An example of this is the case of Anna Drakers, an Assistant Principal of a school in the US who appeared on the Dr. Phil show after two 15 year old boys created a false MySpace account in her name, and then loaded it with defamatory information. Ms Drakers is now pursuing a civil action against the families of the two boys.
The question that was put to us in Michael Carr-Gregg's seminar was whether or not Ms Drakers was right in her pursuit of legal action. Recent neurological research informs us that the brains of 15 year old boys are not sufficiently developed to fully anticipate and evaluate the consequences of their actions. Anyone who's taught 15 year old boys for more than 5 minutes will agree that 15 year olds and stupid decisions go hand in hand.
It's no simple matter to determine whether or not Ms Drakers' action are reasonable or simply motivated by revenge. The action taken by the school was very limited, but the authority the school was allowed to exercise was limited to begin with.
We heard parts of letters from the families. One sounded generally remorseful. Another included this: "He is a good boy and has been a good boy, and the price he is paying is not equal to his actions. There is no possible way I, or any other parent, can monitor every action."
What caught my attention here was that there is an implicit acknowledgment that the actions of the boy are the responsibility of the parents. If the responsibility DOES lie with the parents, is civil legal action then unreasonable? Could Anna's decision to pursue this action constitute a "shot across the bows" of other parents, a wakeup call to them that they need to be looking carefully at what their kids are doing online (not to mention reinforcing their understanding of what is and is not acceptable conduct).
What about a reverse scenario: if the boys had done the same thing, but about someone outside the school (someone's mother, perhaps) and they had done it on the school's computers during school hours, would anyone blink if the defamed person sued the school for being negligent? Would they accept from the school the defence that teenage brains are not fully developed, teenagers make dumb decisions and the school cannot be expected to monitor every single action? I rather doubt it, but if the argument is good enough for these parents to make, why would it not be good enough for a school to make?
Drakers maintained that the issue was not about money but about accountability. The unanswered question in the whole thing was exactly who's accountability is being discussed. Can these boys be held to be completely accountable for their actions, or does the incomplete development of their teenage brains preclude this, in which case, to what extent can and should the parents be held responsible?
Pesonally, I think that the parents should bear a fair amount of the responsibility for the boys' actions - the question is how this should happen. Unfortunately, in Western society, it usually does end up taking the form of legal action.
All of this points to a need to educate parents as much as we educate the students - maybe even more so.