Digital Citizenship: Having The Right Conversation With Students

By: Tim Elmore

The Supreme Court seems close to issuing a ruling in the case of a student who was kicked off her high school cheerleading team due to an obscene Snapchat post. Brandi Levy, a high school sophomore posted a message where she vents, “F— school, F— softball, F— cheer, F— everything!” Obviously, she’s a teen who’s letting off steam after she didn’t make the varsity squad. You’ve likely heard about Brandi. 

The dispute in the courtroom is clear: Is this her “free speech” right or should Brandi be penalized for such language outside of school, which goes against the cheerleading team rules? Further, is a social media post subject to the same rules as the language used on her campus? 

Here is what makes this issue tricky. Brandi Levi’s attorney argued that the precedent, Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines, should not apply when a student is off campus; otherwise, students would be forced to “carry the schoolhouse on their backs… everywhere they go.” Since she wasn’t on school property there should be no penalty. The school’s attorney, however, stated the “ubiquity” of the Internet makes the time and place of a student’s speech “irrelevant” and believed the student’s Snapchat disrupted the school environment. So far, the justices don’t believe either side has made a convincing argument in their case.

I have an entirely different case to make.

The Wrong Argument

With all due respect to the leaders, judges, and attorneys involved, it appears to me that they’re engaged in the wrong argument. While I understand the litigation involved regarding geographical location, shouldn’t we be more concerned about digital citizenship, regardless of where those students are? This feels a little like a parent who says to their teen, “Sweetheart, don’t smoke while you’re on the school campus, but feel free to light up when you’re off campus.” Smoking is unhealthy wherever we are, isn’t it?

During my years serving on John C. Maxwell’s team, Dr. Maxwell was asked by his publisher to do a book on business ethics. It was 2002, and corporate America was suffering from scandals at Enron, Tyco, and Worldcom. John’s response to the request was: “I can’t write a book on business ethics. We’re either ethical wherever we go or we’re not.” He ended up titling his book, There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics. It’s all about living by your values wherever you go.

The same seems true here. We either teach our students the value of civility wherever they go (in-person or digital), or we teach them they don’t have to be civil.

What’s the Place of Social Media?

This court case is a vivid illustration of how we are still figuring out the role of social media in society. We were all ambushed by its omnipresence and don’t quite know how to curb its negative impact on both kids and adults. Social media is, indeed, ubiquitous, and it’s a game changer. Geographical location is a lesser issue, and responsible decision-making is the bigger issue. This is a Social-Emotional Learning competency and is much more than a legal issue. I fear we are teaching students to find loopholes; how and when to act uncivil by relocating to a different place. This is not going to produce great adults after graduation.

What’s the Role of Social and Emotional Learning?

If I’m right — that this issue is really a social and emotional one — then, civility and self-management are as important for students to learn as math and language. What good is it to graduate students who know how to parse a verb, but can’t manage their emotions at work? If we don’t figure this out, we’ll continue to see cyberbullying, narcissistic outrage, sexting, and even threats of violence increase. One of the great education reformers, Horace Mann, in the 1840s, saw this issue even then. He advocated that character development was as important as academics in American schools. This has never been more true than it is today.

When all is said and done, Brandi Levi was not suspended from school or even given a detention. She failed to make the varsity team as a sophomore (Michael Jordan failed to make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore as well), and she got kicked off the entire cheerleading squad because of her inability to control her words and emotions. She will recover and hopefully learn a lesson from this. She may even make the cheer team next year if she learns the lesson: I must discipline myself so someone else doesn’t have to. That’s digital citizenship.

A few years ago, Western Oregon outfielder Sara Tucholsky hit her first home run, but in her excitement forgot to tag first base. As she turned to go back, she injured her ankle. This unfortunate injury would keep Sara from scoring since NCAA rules forbid any teammate from helping her. However, Central Washington University softball players Liz Wallace and Mallory Holtman (of the opposing team) were sure there was no rule against an opponent helping Sara out. So they approached Sara, picked her up, and literally carried her around the bases, setting her down on each one so the run would score. The story gained national attention. When Liz and Mallory were interviewed the next day on national television, they were asked, “Why did you do it?” The two student-athletes looked at each other, then replied, “Because it was the right thing to do.”

Forget litigation for a moment. Digital civility is the outcome I’m working toward. Let’s not give up our fight for it in this next generation.

Digital Citizenship: Having The Right Conversation With Students