February 22, 2018
A teacher’s social media content can impact a school’s reputation, and many cases exist of a teacher being fired for posting provocative content. Unless sharing an opinion on union activity or working conditions, the First Amendment does not protect teachers. Protections exist within the classroom, but online platforms have proven vulnerable.
Of course, some punitive measures are no-brainers, as with cases where content is sexual in nature. And it is generally accepted that teachers can’t publically denigrate their administration, fellow teachers or students online.
But what about the many ambiguous situations that don’t have precedent, such as a recent incident in the Chicago communities Oak Park and River Forest?
Meet Anthony Clark
Anthony Clark’s inbox contained a startling image that originated on Snapchat of a young Caucasian male in blackface with the words, “Vote me for BLU president. For those who don’t know BLU is Black Leaders Union.” The picture was of a 17-year-old Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRFHS) senior covered in an exfoliating mask.
35-year-old Clark is a nine-year teaching veteran who has been working as an educator at OPRFHS for five years. He spends a great deal of his free time as a community organizer, where he leads the group the Suburban Unity Alliance. Clark is also running for a seat in Congress against longtime representative Danny Davis.
Clark said he did not recognize the young man because of the mask. He reposted the blackface image on the Suburban Unity Alliance Facebook page along with a message, encouraging the public to not turn hostile.
The image had gone viral by the time the student deleted the post and issued an online apology. Controversy and uproar ensued as the story reached local news outlets.
Eventually, Clark learned he knew the young man — he had worked with him on his political campaign. He took the picture and initial message down. The student, afraid of serious repercussions, requested a meeting with Clark. That evening, they discussed the issue at length at Clark’s home.
In describing the interaction, Clark said, “We just engaged in restorative justice practices. Breaking it down. Holding him accountable. Figuring out how can we empower those that were the victims in the situation.”
The student was receiving online death threats and he was scared for his life. Clark posted another message on the Suburban Alliance Page explaining their meeting, asking the public to view the incident as a teachable moment.
“As a black leader in the community, stepping out in front and attaching my name would give some credence to those calling for violence to take a step back,” Clark said.
The school’s administration requested that Clark remove the message. He refused. The next day, he was suspended with pay. A week later, after supporters marched in the rain as a show of solidarity, Clark was reinstated.
Social Media Codes of Conduct
OPRFHS has a social media code of conduct within the teacher contract. One part reads: “Social media may not be used to share, publish or transmit information about or images of students and/or district employees without proper approval. For District employees, proper approval may include implied consent under the circumstances.”
So, was Clark’s post a breach of his contract? He posted on his not-for-profit page, not his personal page. He posted an image of a student, but, even though the post directly related to an OPRFHS organization, he says he didn’t know it contained a student. His message was not intended to be incendiary, but one seeking education and restorative justice. Social media tends to create these grey areas, leaving the ultimate decision for punitive measures up to the schools.
The district released a statement explaining the suspension that reads in part, “The current level of discourse is negatively affecting the school learning environment as well as posing safety concerns for our students. We are taking measures to reduce the harm while we investigate this incident.”
The school may have wanted to diffuse the situation, or they may have been angry that Clark didn’t follow their orders and take down the message. Either way, Clark would likely not have legal recourse for being suspended, as he posted a picture of a student without permission. Though many teachers break this rule, when complaints and controversy arise, teachers generally have little recourse.
A Life Outside the Educational System
Clark is a respected member of the community, so shouldn’t he be allowed to weigh in on the issue, on a platform that would be available to the public? Can he not speak on issues that relate to teenagers, a subset that he interacts with daily?
I’m a 17-year teaching veteran, and I’ve found it essential to utilize the language of social media in my lessons. But, like most teachers, I’ve modified my social media use out of fear of crossing a line. I know I need to address social media use in my class, but I hope to avoid contact with my students on social media.
I spoke on the phone with Clark about his suspension and our respective feelings on teachers’ use of social media.
“Institutions benefit from keeping things in-house,” Clark said. “And my actions clearly did not keep the issue in-house. The use of social media spread the issue and the community became aware of it, and I feel like the school responded according to that.”
Clark “friends” past and present students on Facebook, allowing them to observe and comment on his family life and social activism. When he sees a student post something foolish or harmful, he calls them out on it, for example, telling them to take down a video that shows a fight.
He does draw clear lines in how he interacts with students on social media. “[Students] can look at me like a big brother, like a father figure, like a mentor, but you’re never going to look at me like a peer,” he said.
“I don’t think you should have a wall up with your students,” Clark said. “I think it’s important to be extremely transparent and open… I post pictures of things I do with students, whether through the non-profit or the hip-hop club that I run. It’s a vital tool.”
Part of me felt embarrassed upon hearing this. I used to be “friends” with my students post-graduation, but I chose to respect my private life, and I didn’t want to bear witness to their drama after they left my classroom.
We lecture young people on social media use, but who is modeling positive behavior for the next generation? Without responsible supervision, we often have a “Lord of the Flies” situation, where anything goes. This can lead to cyber bullying, rampant rumors and conspiracies, public shaming and even suicide.
Do we really want to disparage an adult that spends portions of his limited free time attempting to model and mentor proper decorum on a playground with no supervisor?
As scary as social media might seem for teachers in the present climate, I see more teachers using it with impunity. Many find it a valuable tool to communicate with students, to keep in touch after graduation and to serve as a positive role model.
Teachers should always use social media with the best interest of their students in mind. Because the rules are often ambiguous and frequently broken, teachers must be prepared for consequences when addressing issues related to their school. For teachers who want to extend their lessons to social media, they very well might find a unique platform for mentorship, but they also should be prepared to sacrifice their jobs and reputation if a scandal breaks out.
Clark realizes that not every teacher will want to adopt his mentorship approach, and he’s fine with that. But he does feel that every teacher has the responsibility to at least be aware of and up to date on the newest trends in social media.
“Schools would benefit from allowing and encouraging and providing some level of [social media] training for teachers that find it valuable to build relationships,” Clark said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of it because we can’t control it.”
Sure, teachers might sometimes overreach and place themselves in controversies without knowing all the facts. But many times, teachers have a unique understanding of the issues surrounding young people. They might have the solution in their back pocket. The only way to contribute to the discussion in many situations is social media. We should respect the voice of teachers and allow them the freedom to speak on the issues that are central to future generations.