In a move that recalls the postings on the now-defunct Juicy Campus, Facebook groups devote themselves to vulgar descriptions of female high school students. As Donna St. George of the Washington Post reported on November 11, a Facebook page targeted 30 female students from the T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. It featured photographs of the students accompanied by “offensive or sexual comments.” Another similar page included a picture of the school’s female principal. The Daily Beast recently reported that Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school banned access to Facebook through campus computers after discovering a 200-plus-page-long threat penned by female students that disparaged fellow female students. The Facebook page described Choate students as “hos” and “gross and faked and spray tanned.”
Facebook’s Terms of Service requires users to agree to refrain from bullying, intimidating, or harassing other users.” Pursuant to that policy (or so we can guess), Facebook took down the page of the 30 girls with the sexually demeaning comments five days after T.C. Williams High School’s principal filed a complaint with Facebook. Despite Facebook’s real-name culture, the author of the Facebook page has not been identified, an unsurprising result given the advantages provided ill-meaning individuals who want to evade responsibility for online activity. In the boarding school matter, it seems that a student copied the thread, publishing it for the consumption of students (and everyone else) who were not privy to the Facebook page. According to the Daily Beast, school administrators “hired a computer forensics expert to track how it had been made public.” Two of the girls who wrote the post were expelled and four were suspended.
In the T.C. Williams High School matter, the principal went on the school’s PA system for two days in a row to let students know that she thought the page was “totally offensive.” The Washington Post reports that the principal also asked students to avoid accessing it: “We’re better than this,” she told the students. If that is all the principal did, it seems a weak showing of moral leadership and civic education. Hopefully, the incident began a longer-term conversation about many things, including bullying, gender harassment, the risks of online activities, and the responsibilities of students while online. Now, the school officials’ response in the Choate matter is worth discussing. Norm Pattis, a Connecticut trial lawyer, contends that the school’s response is too harsh given the dire consequences of a school expulsion on a student’s chances of getting into college. Prohibiting Facebook on campus may also be an empty gesture. On the one hand, Choate students have continued to tweet and tumbl on their school accounts. They also can access social media including Facebook on their mobile devices, raising the same concerns of online civility. On the other, as Pattis suggests, the school missed a crucial teaching opportunity (beyond a 90-minute discussion with students) on how to be leaders, rather than the quick fix of banning Facebook on the campus network. That sounds right to me, too.