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How Much Cyber-Parenting Must Schools Do?

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A boy has apparently sent filthy text messages to your daughter over the weekend. Both are sixth-graders at the same school. You, the girl's father, coach sports with the boy's father. What would you do?

a. Disconnect your daughter from all texting services.

b. Talk to the boy's father, whom you know.

c. If the father refuses to do something about it, stop socializing with him.

d. Call the police.

e. Do some combination of a, b, c and d.

f. Complain to the school principal.

This is a real-life example, and the parents chose only f.

The two students attended Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. The principal, Tony Orsini, asked the girl's parents whether they had contacted the boy's family. No. That would upset the coaching arrangement. He asked whether they had called the police. They again said no, making several excuses.

In olden days, the parents probably would have intervened personally. They could have cut off their daughter's texting capabilities and diplomatically called the other parents. Or they might have gone directly to the door of the offending schoolmate's house to make their displeasure very clear. 

The more aggressive approach is best done with calm. The parents may have had no idea of their child's activities and would be grateful for the information. Or, the odious messages may have come from someone else who had found the cell phone. That had happened in the above case. 

But outsourcing this parenting role to teachers and principals seems to have become the common practice. (By the way, some students also viciously smear teachers and principals on networking sites.) 

Most schools understandably don't have the time or desire to monitor their charges' electronic communications. And what's a school to do when one student sends obscene texts to another from home on a weekend? Obtain a search warrant?

Suppose the principal confiscates a cell phone and finds provocative photos of the owner on it, not uncommon for those who do "sexting." The educator risks having an unhinged parent retaliate by charging him (or her) of trafficking in child pornography.

Schools have come up with varied responses to the cyber-bully problem. A Seattle middle school suspended 28 students who ganged up on a classmate on Facebook. By contrast, a mother asked a school in Fairfax, Va., to punish students involved in a Facebook pile-up on her son and was told there was nothing it could do.

My favorite response was Principal Orsini's. He sent an e-mail to all parents that described their responsibilities.

"There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site," Orsini wrote. He noted that cruel 12-year-olds pose more a threat to their middle-schoolers's well-being than the adult predators of parental nightmares. And he told parents whose children were attacked through networking sites or messages: "IMMEDIATELY GO TO THE POLICE!"

Typing these words, I feel like reaching for the hand sanitizer. You who have hung in this far may feel similar revulsion. You wonder why any sixth-grader has texting privileges at all. Why parents let their tender-age teens do social networking. Why Facebook opens its service to people as young as 13.

There are ways to pressure Facebook. Parents, meanwhile, must do their job. They must confront the parents of their children's assailants, contain their kids' computer use and, if necessary, call the police.

And all parents need reminding that the wretched writings, photos and videos their children post in cyberspace are there forever. Ten years from now, they will haunt their kids a lot more than the schoolmate that was bullied.

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V iews expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.                      

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