As a teacher engaged in pastoral care, one of the most pressing ethical issues we face is the student use of social media outside school hours. By and large, the majority of student actions on social media are not concerning, but frequently, issues addressed among teens via their devices would often lead to isolated issues of bullying and harassment. This can often spill over into the school environment with parents expecting the school to deal with the issues among their child’s peer groups.
This ultimately raises a number of questions for a school’s pastoral team: who is responsible for a student’s use of media outside school hours, and what role – if any – does the school play in mitigating the fallout caused by the abuse of social media?
In my school, there is no written formal policy on the misuse of social media outside of school hours, but staff take it upon themselves to identify and mitigate any instances of social media misuse, even if it was occurring outside of school hours. The school does this for a number of reasons. Firstly, as teachers we were/are committed to protect the wellbeing of the learner (Education Council, Code of Ethics). We acknowledged that the students who were involved in these social media instances were disengaged within the class and that their concerns could sometimes accelerate into physical confrontations.
Secondly, as a school we were/are responsible for promoting and protecting the principles of human rights, and social justice. Integral to this is the right for a student to feel safe at school. In this guise, we also had a responsibility to engage in relationships with ‘families and whānau that are professional and respectful’ (Education Council, Code of Ethics). Because many parents were not aware of their student’s use of social media, we felt it important that they understood the intricacies of what was occurring and how to deal with the issue from home.
To illustrate our procedures around instances of social media misuse, a potential example of it, alongside its rectification will be discussed:
Student A (the instigator), made a disparaging meme about Student B and then shared that meme on Snapchat among other members of the class. Two of the students who received the meme, C and D, then used the screen shot function on their devices and saved the image. They then distributed the image around more friends, including students from other schools. The following day, Student B is made aware of the meme by one of his/her friends and is left upset and angry. At recess, there is a confrontation between the students.
Issues and Concerns
Created a meme that victimised Student B. The student is liable under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 because he/she used a form of electronic communication that contravened principle 5 of the act: ‘A digital communication should not be used to harass an individual.’
Had a meme posted publically about themselves without their knowledge or permission. He/she is upset and feels undermined by the peer group. He/she feels victimised and embarrassed. Student is concerned that this may hang around and negatively impact on their online identity (Henderson, 2014) Student does not want to be at school.
Student C and Student D
Thought the meme was funny and sent it onto a wider peer group. Their actions also constitute a breach of the Harmful Digital Communitcations Act 2015.
Peers within school
Many saw the meme and did not pass it on. Most thought it was funny, but did not think anything more about it. Their perception of Student B remains unchanged, most think more negatively about Student A. They are concerned that he/she might target them.
Peers outside of school
Same as above.
Parents of student A
Surprised that their child has been accused of online bullying. Worried that there could be police intervention. Worried that the police may hold them responsible as their student created the meme at home on the family server.
Parents of student B
Angry that Student A created the meme and shared it. Want Student A held accountable. Wants the school to exercise its maximum authority.
Parents of students C and D
Like the parents of Student A, they are worried about potential criminal proceedings, but feel that their children had a much smaller part to play. Want the issue to go away.
Would like the situation dealt with effectively and quickly. Worried that the online component might bring the school into disrepute, especially if it is picked up by the media. Concerned that all the students’ involved need to be given a fair and equitable say in proceedings.
A restorative conference would be called between the immediately affected families. Restorative practice works in well with my school’s Catholic charism as it requires all parties to become involved in the discipline process. Using the school’s policy of care for the individual and its links to restorative practice, the lead pastoral team would define the issues, acknowledge all those involved and their roles, reflect openly on the effects of the behaviours and finally, agree on consequences.
Although the school would not seek any criminal proceedings, we would insist on the attendance of the school’s partnership Police Officer to add formality to the proceedings and emphasise the criminal nature of the bullying. The school would also arrange the meeting so that the parents of the affected children could attend so as to support their students, and to express their views and give them full engagement in the process. Having parents attend the full proceedings is important as it helps to mitigate any unforeseen disciplinary problems that a family might instigate such as the example illustrated by Hall (2001, p.2-3).
Ultimately, the school would be geared towards addressing the imbalances caused in the relationships by the offending and the restoration of all parties back into the class environment.
To address the wider group of students exposed to the incident, the school would employ the New Zealand Police to address the students at an assembly and brief them on what constitutes online harassment, how to avoid it, and what potential penalties there are.
In this way, the school would meet all its ethical responsibilities of ensuring that the students are safe and that the wider whanau groups had an adequate input into the proceedings.
Education Council. (2017). Our Code of Standards: code of professional responsibility and standards for the teaching profession. Retrieved from: https://educationcouncil.org.nz/sites/default/files/Our%20Code%20Our%20Standards%20web%20booklet%20FINAL.pdf
Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered? An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers. Paper presented at the IIPE Conference, Brisbane. Retrieved from http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Culture/Developing-leaders/What-Ought-I-to-Do-All-Things-Considered-An-Approach-to-the-Exploration-of-Ethical-Problems-by-Teachers
Henderson, M., Auld, G., & Johnson, N. F. (2014). Ethics of Teaching with Social Media. Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference 2014, Adelaide, SA. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.719.2437&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Ministry of Education. (2015). Digital technology – Safe and responsible use in schools. Retrieved from http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/School/Managing-and-supporting-students/DigitalTechnologySafeAndResponsibleUseInSchs.pdf
New Zealand Government. (2015). Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office. Retrieved from: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2015/0063/latest/whole.html#DLM5711867