Friday, November 28, 2008

Public school teachers go wild on social networks

Students see instructors in explicit photos, drinking alcohol, discussing sex online

As part of a disturbing new trend, America's public-school teachers are increasingly posting questionable and even sexually explicit information on video-sharing websites and social networks frequented by youth. According to several nationwide reports, students often search for their teachers on MySpace and Facebook, and some find more information about their instructors than they ever expected. The National Education Association listed a number of cases, while news outlets have been consistently reporting similar incidents, including the following:

Virginia - Monacan High School art teacher Stephen Murmer posted pictures of what he called "butt art" on YouTube in January 2007. He painted his buttocks and genitals and pressed them onto canvas. Many students saw his painting before the school fired him. He then contacted the ACLU and sued the district, saying it violated his First Amendment rights. Murmer reached a $65,000 settlement with the district.

A kindergarten teacher from Prince William County, Va., posted a video of a half-nude man having an orgasm in the shower, the Washington Post reported. Another Prince William County substitute teacher used MySpace to post photos of a woman lifting her dress, showing lingerie and flashing breasts.

Florida - Band director Scott Davis of Broward County posted explicit material about sex and drugs on his MySpace profile. He was later dismissed by the school.

Also Florida middle-school teacher John Bush was fired from his position after officials discovered "offensive" and "unacceptable" photos on MySpace.

Palm Beach County, Fla., kindergarten teacher Meghan Buckley posted photos on Facebook of herself drinking and having a friend spank her buttocks, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. Special-education teacher Andrew Summerlin, also of Palm Beach County, described himself as "super horny" and an "A++" in bed.

Colorado - An English teacher was fired for posting explicit sexual poetry on MySpace.

Tennessee - Nashville teacher Margaret Thompson posted "racy pictures" on her MySpace profile.

Massachusetts - Teacher Keath Driscoll referred to women as "whores" and posted photographs of alcohol consumption and "sexually suggestive" pictures. He was originally fired, but the Massachusetts Teachers Association sued. Driscoll received his job back, with back pay, seniority and benefits.

Georgia - Atlanta high school football coach Donald Shockley used his school computer to store pictures of an assistant principal wearing lingerie and posing provocatively. Shockley asked a student to use his computer for work, and the teen posted the pictures on the Internet and distributed them to his peers. The coach was later fired.

Ohio - According to the Columbus Dispatch, one teacher described herself as "an aggressive freak in bed," "sexy" and "an outstanding kisser," while another instructor said she had "gotten drunk," "taken drugs" and "gone skinny-dipping" in October last year. Both teachers posted their accounts on MySpace.

Maryland - In April, Montgomery County special education teacher posted a picture of talking sperm on her Facebook profile and used a slang term for oral sex, the Washington Post reported. Another teacher, Alina Espinosa of Clopper Mill Elementary School, included the following in her "about me" section: "I only have two feelings: hunger and lust. Also, I slept with a hooker. Be jealous. I like to go onto Jdate [an online dating service for Jewish people] and get straight guys to agree to sleep with me."

North Carolina - In the latest case, the Charlotte Observer reports a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher may be fired for "posting derogatory comments about students on Facebook." According to the report, four other instructors have been disciplined for using the social network for posts showing "poor judgment and bad taste." One teacher listed drinking as a favorite hobby and described her job as "teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte."

Another special-education teacher reportedly used Facebook to write, "I'm feeling p---ed because I hate my students!"

Teachers in several states have been fired or suspended for their postings on social networks, and some challenge their termination in court, citing exercise of free speech. Now teachers' unions are now warning instructors about displaying questionable material.

Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for the National Education Association, told the Washington Post teachers should think twice before claiming free speech protection under the First Amendment, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that governments may terminate employees if their speech harms workplace function.

"I hate to think of what's out there," Ken Blackstone, a Prince William, Va., schools spokesman, told the Post. "But as public employees, we all understand the importance of living a public life above reproach."


Don't outlaw boisterous banter in the playground

As Britain launches another Anti-Bullying Week, the author of Reclaiming Childhood says demonising teasing can do more harm than good

This year's anti-bullying week in the UK - with its theme of `Being different, belonging together' - kicks off today. And it provides a powerful reminder that official fretting over children's wellbeing, over the supposedly terrible dangers of bullying in the playground, can do more harm than good, stunting children's developmental growth and harming their social interaction with others.

The annual anti-bullying week is an initiative launched by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), founded in 2002 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Children's Bureau. The ABA brings together 60 organisations `with the aim of reducing bullying and creating safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn'.

At the launch event for anti-bullying week, in the Globe Theatre in London, the secretary of state for children, families and schools, Ed Balls, said: `When I talk to mums and dads, when I talk to children in primary school and secondary school to ask what is really important about school, often they will say that the most important thing is to make sure there isn't bullying.' (1)

In last month's Ofsted survey of more than 150,000 10- to 15-year-olds in England, 39 per cent said they had been bullied at school and over a quarter said bullying was a `significant' concern (2).

In preparation for this year's anti-bullying week, ABA sent every school in England a resource pack to help prepare them for a stream of anti-bullying initiatives and activities. These include an `Ideas for pupils' section, with suggestions such as: `Get everyone in your school to wear blue for the day', and `Get all the people wearing blue into the playground to form different shapes or words - for example "Say No", "No", "Stop", "Stop Bullying", "Be Unique"' (3). The packs also include a `Briefing for school leaders' explaining that the theme `Being different, belonging together' will encourage schools to `open up the central issue of difference in their communities to further scrutiny, and to use Anti-Bullying Week as an opportunity to ask what it is that makes people unique and different, whilst retaining a key focus on what unites and unifies them' (4).

As an aside, surely this slogan sits rather uneasily with the government's anti-obesity drive, and its plan to weigh all children in Reception and Year 6, to see if they are an `acceptable' size? If anything will make children feel different from the `norm', and cut off from their classmates, it will be something like the government's top-down shaming of chubby children and its celebration of slim children. This government measure is likely to encourage overweight and obese children to obsess unnecessarily about their bodies, to feel like failures in comparison to other children and as a drain on the nation's resources. It is striking, and very worrying, that almost a third (32 per cent) of the children in the Ofsted survey said they were concerned `about their body' when asked what worried them most.

However, setting aside government hypocrisy over `differences' between kids, surely it is a laudable aim to try to reduce bullying and create a safer environment for children?

For a small minority of children, bullying is undoubtedly a profound problem. Every year we read tragic news stories about children taking their own lives after years of incessant bullying. In 2004, 13-year-old Laura Rhodes from Neath, South Wales, took a fatal overdose. Her parents said she had been terrified by the bullying and taunts she endured at school every day. That same year, 12-year-old Aaron Armstrong was found hanged in a hayshed at his family farm in County Antrim in Ireland after being bullied at school.

Such stories are heartbreaking - and they are precisely why we need to put the discussion about bullying in some proper perspective. Unlike these tragic cases, much that is defined as bullying today is not bullying at all. It is boisterous banter or everyday playground disputes that could - and should - be resolved without adult intervention. Treating all playground disputes as serious acts of abuse does not help victims of terrible bullying, like Laura or Aaron. Indeed, as I argue in my forthcoming book Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, it discourages a proper sense of vigilance about real brutality perpetrated by a handful of children in favour of seeing all relationships between all children as somehow problematic.

Today's obsession with bullying is not good for children and it is not good for teachers, either. Teachers are increasingly lumbered with the task of looking after children's health and wellbeing, rather than being allowed to get on with the task of educating them. And children are encouraged to assume that their relationships with other children are damaging, and are tacitly encouraged to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion.

As more and more forms of behaviour are labelled as `bullying' - from arguments to group-creation, from name-calling to actual violence - so more and more children come to be labelled as `bullies' or `victims'. Professor Dennis Hayes, co-author of the 2008 book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, believes anti-bullying policies are making mattes worse. `The more you talk about bullying, the more it sensitises people to every social slight, and the more it becomes a problem', he argues.

In the ABA's school resource pack teachers are told that they need to `keep the signs of bullying in the forefront of their minds' (5). But if teachers become involved in every playground spat or squabble, they will both blow incidents out of proportion and, more worryingly still, undermine children's ability to manage uncomfortable situations.

Some childhood experiences are of course hurtful; and for children, a nasty taunt or a fallout with your best friend can genuinely feel like the end of the world. That does not mean, however, that these experiences actually are harmful. Being left out of a playground game may make a child cry for a week, but by the following week he or she is likely to be involved again and earlier antagonisms will have been forgotten. Children are not emotionally scarred by these experiences: they get over them and move on. Once the experience is labelled as `bullying', however, and a teacher becomes involved and makes it an Official Issue, then it becomes an issue of much greater significance, driving a more permanent wedge between the putative victim and that week's bullies, and making it far harder for the spontaneous dynamics of playground life to resolve themselves.

There is a real danger that by focusing on bullying we can end up denying children the experiences they need to develop. American sociologist William Corsaro shows that conflict, especially arguments and teasing, can `help bring children together and help organise activities': `Recent research on peer conflict among elementary school children shows how disputes are a basic means for construction of social order, cultivating, testing and maintaining friendships, and developing and displaying social identity. Disputes, teasing and conflict can add a creative tension that increases [play's] enjoyment.' (5)

If we treat children as if they cannot possibly cope with hurtful experiences, then we will likely undermine their confidence and make them less likely to cope with difficult events in the future. In effect, we will prevent them from growing up.

The UK government document Building Brighter Futures, which outlines a 10-year `Children's Plan', states: `Bullying can destroy lives and have an immeasurable impact on young people's confidence, self-esteem, mental health and social and emotional development.' This obsession with the long-term effects of bullying leads to a situation where children might become unwilling, and even incapable of, resolving their own problems with their peers - and that could damage children's development, and their relationships with each other, far more than the odd stone thrown or insult shouted.


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