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My Two Cents: Leave Cybercivility To School Administrators

By Joseph Hawkins

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 11:45am  ET

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

Joseph Hawkins“ … Our approach has been more to educate our students as responsible and ethical digital citizens.” Marco Clark, President of Bishop McNamara High School

Public school students behaving poorly in cyberspace resulted in the Montgomery County Public Schools creating a Cybercivility Task Force. Do we really need a task force?  Is a task force really the best way to develop respectful digital citizens?

Having served on three MCPS task forces, I know the drill — lots of meetings, a report, a presentation to the Board of Education, and maybe two years down the road new policies and procedures emerge.

And so to save time, I was wondering: Why not just kick this problem down the food chain.

Let each individual MCPS school debate it, settle it and set their own rules for civility on the internet. This sounds somewhat uncontrolled, but I’ll bet that all 200-plus MCPS schools already have their own rules in place for how students use technology.

With a simple email to all principals, Superintendent Joshua Starr could request that the troops in the field add some basic rules around civility.

I’m sure there are “model” MCPS schools, but not having the time to sort that one out, I turned to my old high school, Bishop McNamara in Prince George’s County, to explore how a high school is dealing with an explosion in social media use of all types by teens.

Last month, I chatted via email with Marco Clark, the president of the private school. Previously, he served as the school’s principal. The interview has been edited for length.

Me: Tell me a little about how McNamara adjusts to life in the 21st century — the fact that technology and computers are everywhere.

Clark: In 2013-2014 we issued iPads to each of our teachers and administrators and hired a Director of Instructional Technology to lead the faculty through a comprehensive in-service program ranging from simple uses to more complex classroom applications. In 2014-2015 we will be beta-testing the program and testing the strength and elasticity of our wireless network by issuing approximately 100 iPads to select students in various classes.

Currently, students are allowed to bring their own device for note taking and other student uses, however, cell phones and smartphones are not permitted for use during the school day. Likewise, there are rules against taking videos, using social media, texting, or personal emailing throughout the school day.

Me: According to the most recent Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, 14.2% of the state’s high students are bullied electronically. Any bullying is wrong. Is electronic or cyberbullying a problem at McNamara? And when it occurs, what happens?

Clark: Access and the rise of social media definitely have added a new dimension. Cyber-bullying is a prominent issue across the country and one that we take quite seriously at McNamara. We not only look to respond quickly with consequences for cyber-bullying with a zero-tolerance policy, but we also take great measures to educate our students about cyber-bullying from a legal, psychological, and ethical vantage point.

Me:  It seems impossible to monitor and control all students’ electronic communications — e-mails, tweets, Facebook postings, phone texts, etc. And so, where is the line between overdoing it and just the right amount of policing?

Clark: Students sign technology agreement forms and understand the expectations for proper use as stated in our student handbook.  This alone, however, doesn’t prevent the improper use or abuse of technology.

While there is some “policing” that is necessary, our approach has been more to educate our students as responsible and ethical digital citizens. This is the reality of their future and we take our responsibility as a Catholic and college-preparatory school to appeal to our students ethically and focusing on issues of human dignity and respect.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.