High school students have always complained about their teachers. Before the invention of the Internet, they did it in person or over the phone. Now, they also do it online and on social media.
The new kvetching methods leave a paper trail, as it were. And recently, some San Francisco teachers and school administrators learned that, yes, some of their students were unhappy and said so on the Internet.
So the school officials did the worst possible thing: they suspended them and canceled their prom privileges.
Here’s the story, as reported by the Bay Citizen. Three seniors at George Washington High School posted testimonials about some of their teachers on a Tumblr blog with the theme “scumbag teachers.” (The site has since been taken down.) Among the complaints were that one teacher spent three weeks lecturing about the art rock band Pink Floyd, then sprang a final project on the students with three days’ notice; or that another teacher was lazy while complaining about student government leaders.
According to a press release by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which defended the students, George Washington’s principal summoned the students to her office and “interrogated them at length.” The principal then accused them of “bullying,” suspended them for three days, and denied them not only the chance to attend their prom, but also to walk in their graduation ceremony.
When the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus got involved, the district promptly reversed the decision, and that is to its credit.
But not every student has the wherewithal to find such advocates, and it is only by the grace of these students’ refusal to take this lying down that we are hearing about it.
To be sure, the question of what constitutes unacceptable behavior in an online world is far from resolved. In the last few months, teachers have been suspended or fired for acting in pornographic movies in their spare time — side projects that probably wouldn’t have come to light just 10 years ago, but now are available at the click of a mouse. And when teachers post critical remarks about gay marriage on their personal Facebook pages, is that merely a private exercise of their First Amendment rights or does it constitute professional misconduct, since they may instruct gay students who could feel victimized by such remarks.
But one thing is clear: students must have the right to criticize their teachers. In this case, the complaints directly pertained to the quality of their instruction. If you can be suspended for calling a teacher lazy, then there’s no point in teaching the First Amendment in civics class.
And raising the specter of cyberbullying was a particularly cynical ploy by George Washington’s principal. Online bullying, particularly of gay students, has recently come to the nation’s attention through such initiatives as the It Gets Better project, and it’s long overdue. To see a principal seize on such a welcome development to justify persecuting students for speaking their minds is contemptible.
We hope the district’s leaders use this as what they call a teaching moment because such abuse of power comes all too easy. And next time, the students may not be so quick to stand up for themselves.