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The Bully or the Bullied?

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Katherine Evans was fed up with her high school English teacher. "To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred," she wrote on her Facebook page, according to the New York Times. Two months later, the honors student received a three-day suspension for cyberbullying.

Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Evans is suing the principal of Pembroke Pines Charter High School for infringing on her freedom of speech. She is requesting compensation for her legal fees and removal of the blemish from her record.

Many who oversee school disciplinary policy, such as Pamela Brown who handles expulsions for the Broward County School District, believe the punishment was fair. "We don’t want teachers to work in fear, looking over their shoulders when they walk to their cars after school," Brown stated.

However, Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union sees the case differently. "If Katie Evans said what she said over burgers with her friends at the mall, there is no question it would be protected by free speech." The legal complaint was filed in December and the principal has yet to respond.

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In two weeks we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Tinker decision. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized student free speech rights. Only if a student's expression disrupts the school or violates another's rights can a school legitimately discipline the student. Katherine Evans may win her case based on the Tinker test.
For more about teen law [rights and responsibilities] take a look at www.askthejudge.info - a free, interactive teen-law web site. Join the discussion. Regards, Judge Tom.

The interesting thing to me was that other students told her that she was off-base about the teacher and she took it down in short order. Pretty hard to understand what the 3 day suspension, 2 months later was meant to accomplish.

I am a teacher and find this ridiculous! What a student does outside of school is personal and is no business of the school.

What happened to the child hood rhyme "sticks and stones...?" That teacher needs to be an adult or leave teaching. Grow UP!

But, what about a student who creates a false facebook or myspace page about a teacher? this has happened twice at my school.

When is a teacher protected from false infomation or a differnece of opionion? People believe what the see on the net. If I start a my space page against Joe Blow that he does sexual things with animals, and everybody who know Joe reads the page some peopl;e will start to think it is true or at least give Joe and hard time about it. Doesn't he have a right to stop someone from defaming him in a public forumor is OK for anybody to say anything they want? Freedom of speech is protected under law being an disrepectful studnet is not.

mike--what you are describing is libelous speech, which is not protected. It involves the publication of untrue things about a person. A student's opinion that a teacher is not a good teacher would be protected. A statement that the teacher does it with dogs (unless known to the student to be true) would not.

I teach a Classroom Organization and Management course for undergraduates. We just had a very lively and passionate discussion about bullying and cyberbullying. Keep in mind that this happens toward teachers, but it also happens toward other students, which is what alarms me most.
While it is true that there will always be students that do not like particular teacher (for good reason or not), and that our freedom of speech gives us the right to the opinion that one teacher is better or worse than another, there is another side to this issue. In our responses to issues like this one, we create social norms that will shape what our students believe about this issue. In our responses, are we becoming better people, are we making educational environments safe for everyone, and are we teaching students positive and constructive communication?
I believe cyber-bullying is dangerous in the following ways: 1) It encourages people to say things they would not say in front of the person they are talking about. It does not encourage honest and constructive conversation about issues. 2) It reinforces or creates "us vs. them" mentality by allowing students to create vitual "hate groups". 3) It teaches that power comes from putting someone in a lower social position, and reinforces the idea that different is bad. 4) Those reading posts about themselves often do so without support or even others' knowledge about the situation. Particularly in the case of students who have had others post ugly, nasty things about them, this can be unbelievably damaging emotionally. 5) Many websites allow students to post things anonomously (or students create fake identities to do so). This encourages students to "go further" with their comments, and allows them to be absolved of any responsibility for their actions.
I encourage the educational community to keep talking about this very serious issue! If education is more than academics, which I believe it is, we must develop thoughtful responses to these kinds of situations.

Jennifer,
Excellent, articulate, thoughtful assessment of the situation. You have reached the heart of the discussion, and the issues that we as educators should be focusing on. Thank you.

Jennifer,
Excellent, articulate, thoughtful assessment of the situation. You have reached the heart of the discussion, and the issues that we as educators should be focusing on. Thank you.

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Recent Comments

  • Theresa: Jennifer, Excellent, articulate, thoughtful assessment of the situation. You have read more
  • Theresa: Jennifer, Excellent, articulate, thoughtful assessment of the situation. You have read more
  • Jennifer: I teach a Classroom Organization and Management course for undergraduates. read more
  • Margo/Mom: mike--what you are describing is libelous speech, which is not read more
  • mike: When is a teacher protected from false infomation or a read more

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