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Threats on Facebook and schools’ responses raise concerns for students

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TORONTO (CP) - A spate of suspensions arising from student griping on Facebook is prompting calls for educators to study the deeper issue rather than punishing students with a knee-jerk response and for students to realize just how the far an offhand remark can travel online.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/05/2007 (5688 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TORONTO (CP) – A spate of suspensions arising from student griping on Facebook is prompting calls for educators to study the deeper issue rather than punishing students with a knee-jerk response and for students to realize just how the far an offhand remark can travel online.

Dozens of students have been suspended and police investigations have been launched into negative comments made mostly against teachers by students posting on the popular social networking website.

Most recently, a group of students at a Nova Scotia high school were suspended over remarks made about a pregnant teacher.

Students have been disparaging teachers long before the Internet’s inception. But placing those comments online turns it into a whole new ball game, said University of Toronto sociology professor Barry Wellman.

“It’s one thing saying ‘The teacher sucks,’ to your friends over a beer or a cigarette or a Coke,” he said.

“That’s slanderous, but nobody really cares about that. When you put it on the web it’s libellous because it can be read by anybody and can hurt the person’s reputation.”

Most children and teens are not aware of how many people can access those comments or their posterity. On Facebook, users can make their profile private so that only people they approve as their friends can view it. Where most of the students are running into trouble, however, are with comments posted on group pages, which for the most part can be viewed by any Facebook user.

“I think we’re fully responsible for what we put on Facebook, so if a teacher was to discover it, there should be repercussions for the student that posted it,” said Matika Lauzon, 16, from Haileybury, Ont., north of North Bay.

“The problem is we’re not aware that it is accessible by anyone.”

As a student leader attending a conference in Toronto to discuss such Internet and technology issues, Lauzon and his fellow participants are more well-versed in the topic that some of their peers.

“I don’t think we’re concentrating on preventing (these incidents),” he said.

“We have to do something about that.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Education will take what the participants at Friday’s conference said and put together a discussion paper on the topic that they hope to hand out to schools by September.

Most of the several dozen participants said there isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t check their Facebook account. They don’t condone threats or posting mean comments about teachers, but say at the end of the day, unwinding in their pyjamas at the computer is a great way to vent frustration and see they’re not alone in what is irking them.

It’s terrible to denigrate teachers at all, but then again, it seems like an intrusion of privacy for teachers to be snooping on students online, Lauzon said.

But in terms of the Internet, Facebook is relatively private, Wellman said.

“It’s pretty clear to me that people have no sense of their private comments being public,” he said.

“When we hired somebody we did a Facebook search on everybody we interviewed.”

Facebook used to be open only to students. Stories about the suspensions resulting from the negative posts about teachers only started coming out after the site expanded last year so that anyone with an e-mail address could register.

Anabel Quan-Haase, an information and media studies professor at the University of Western Ontario, said that doesn’t appear to have sunk in, and students are still acting as if it is only their peers reading their posts.

“Students … haven’t really learned what we call the ‘Netiquette,’ the proper online behaviour, and they may just not realize the kind of damage they can do,” she said.

By the time students reach university, they should be fully aware of the consequences of their online activities – a job she said falls to schools.

“We as educators have to teach them what is proper and what is not.”

Anna Vehter, 17, a conference participant from Toronto, expressed concern over schools getting involved in Facebook activities that have no bearing on education.

She said some students posted pictures from a party where they were drinking. A teacher came across the pictures, printed them and gave them to the principal, who called the teens’ parents, Vehter said.

“I think that’s crazy,” she said.

“If it was directly (involving) the teacher … fine, do it. But not when the kids are just having fun.”

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