I had teachers I didn’t like — we all did. I even made fun of them, had made-up codenames for them and passed notes that included some not so nice drawings of these nemesis teachers. This tends to happen a lot in middle school when the combination of learning a whole new vocabulary of sexual terminology and profanity can make this kind of student heckling of teachers pretty ruthless. When this happened, and students got caught, usually for passing a note or starting rumor, they would typically get a sitdown with the principal and the parents.
Today totally wired tweens and teens are doing the same thing — they’re just doing it online. And they’re getting expelled or even sued. One of the parents I interviewed for the book told me about her daughter’s expulsion for making fun of her middle school teacher on MySpace. While the parent was rightly horrified by what her daughter and her friend posted (as was the principal since it became a rallying point for other students to target this teacher), she also felt the school overreached by expelling her daughter in her last year of middle school. The expulsion was hugely traumatic for the whole family.
In a related story, a teen was recently investigated by the Secret Service for threatening President Bush on MySpace. Many teens have been questioned by police for threatening posts about classmates, teachers, ex-girlfriends, etc. Teenagers are passionate. They are impulsive and hotheaded. And until they are questioned by authorities or caught for these types of postings, they may not realize that a) anyone is taking them seriously and b) that their post can spread virally and generate way more hate than passing a note.
The challenge for adults reading teen blogs is not to overreact. If there are red flags, by all means react – talk to the teen, talk to the parents – but remember, teens are still teens and will often say something in anger or frustration they don’t really mean. The key is continuing to emphasize the public nature of these sites to them. If their friends can read their blog so can their teachers, principals and cops. Most teens are starting to get this, but especially for younger tweens who may be tempted to deface a photo of Mrs. so-and-so and post it on MySpace, letting them know the potentially more severe consequences (than when we were kids) is essential.
Update: USA Today just published an article on the harsh punishments schools are doling out for these types of blogging incidents including:
– A student at an Indianapolis-area school was expelled for making sexually explicit comments about a teacher on MySpace.
– Officials at a Pittsburgh school kicked a student off the volleyball team for an Internet message that criticized an art teacher.
– A cheerleader at a Fort Worth-area school was kicked off the squad for derogatory comments someone posted on her blog about other cheerleaders.