Interview with Dale Jackson on social media surveillance

After publishing an AL.com editorial criticizing Huntsville City Schools’ surveillance of students’ social media, Dale Jackson of WVNN asked me to come in and debate my points on air. You can read my original editorial here.

I edited this recording to show only my interview. The audio of more of Mr. Jackson’s show is available at www.theattackmachine.com.

Huntsville City Schools’ monitoring of social media

(This article was originally published on AL.com)

What should the role of a school system be in the digital age? Dr. Wardynski said in another article on AL.com that “the first duty of the Superintendent” is to “ensure student safety” both from threats of violence and from online intimidation, like cyberbullying. After the tragedy at Columbine and the all-too-common suicides of teenagers bullied online, schools can and should work to protect students from these threats.

However, spying on students’ social media and private lives is not the best way to do this: after all, the persona that anyone presents online is different from the person they are inside. Schools should take a stronger approach in looking after the psychological well-being of students to catch depression and other problems before they burst into tragedy. By reducing class sizes and increasing actual contact with caring teachers who are trained and paid to look for problems in students, more people will voluntarily come forward and ask for help before they do something they cannot undo.

Monitoring social media addresses all the right problems in all the wrong ways. By the time a student is bringing a gun to school or considering suicide, there will have been dozens of points where an adult could have given that student a kind word, referred them to receive extra help, and taken action to stop harassment or put the student in a better home.

Expelling the students that need help the most only helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty that likely put students in a toxic environment in the first place. In the landmark 1954 case Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that it “is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The same minority students that are protected by that ruling are the ones that may be disproportionately targeted by this surveillance. The stain of expulsion on a student’s permanent record can throw that student off the difficult and delicate track towards success, already weighted against minority students.

Teenagers are not hard to understand. They are under heavy pressures to succeed in an uncertain and changing world, and this can be stressful, even when students don’t admit it. No matter how many benchmarks students pass or metrics they measure well in, nothing changes the fact that they are human and often fail and get sad or lonely.

We don’t need more one-off assemblies where random presenters come in from out of town to preach to us about the dangers of drugs and drinking and depression. We need better relationships between students and faculty, and a better support network for our teachers. One of my teachers told me that “it’s physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting…loving and caring about your futures.” Administrators should be focusing on supporting and training teachers, not obsessing over numbers. We as a nation need to be willing to pay teachers a wage that not only compensates them for the stress they go through, but also a wage that incentivizes talented young people to go into education.

To believe that the answer to the problems facing our schools will be as easy as monitoring social media belittles teenage students and treats the symptoms of our problems rather than the cause. We as Americans need to get the guts to fix our problems, not expel them or throw them in jail.