The New York City Department of Education is considering passing an ordinance that would outlaw “sexting” among students in public schools both within and outside the classroom. The law, which could go into effect as soon as this fall would include a provision for cyber-bullying, sexting and give school principals and administrators wide ranging powers to suspend, discipline and in some cases even expel students who engage in these activities even if it occurs outside regular school hours or off campus. While I’m as excited as the next person whenever public schools want to take a stronger stand on moral education this is yet another example of schools demonstrating their ignorance of the very kids they’re trying to teach.
“Sexting” and “cyber-bullying” are the hottest new names in child education and sociology that are making the rounds in public discourse while really not amounting to much more than buzz words. Sexting, is defined loosely as explicit or elicit conversations about sex, and or exchanges of sexual actions via text messaging services on a mobile phone. My doesn’t that sound sexy? Cyber-bullying, an equally ridiculous term, sounds more like something that should occur between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates than two disgruntled 15 year olds at your local public school. The concept basically refers to harassment and threats of violence between teens that occur through the Internet. So, in some cases this involves sending mean e-mails back and forth or posting rude things about someone on facebook or MySpace, in some other cases it includes actual threats of violence and abuse online. Between the two, cyber- bullying is the easier to identify, but they both smack of the kind of over-the top hand wringing that leads to so many in the public doubting the competence and sophistication of public school officials.
While the New York Department of Education has the core right idea: let’s keep kids safe. They’re going about in the most ham-fisted way possible. First, any rule in general that prohibits behavior of students that occurs outside of school hours or off school property needs to be extremely specific. The enforcement of such rules is almost impossible and worse, the kids never get an idea as to what lesson they should learn anyway. So if two kids are texting dirty thoughts to each other at 11 p.m. on a school night and a principal somehow finds out has she grounds to suspend the kids? That’s more of a parent issue than a school one. More importantly, who is going to enforce these kinds of rules 24 hours a day 7 days a week? Public school teachers are overburdened enough as it is, now they have to play cyber-monitor too? Moreover, it seems philosophically unsound to outlaw discussion or simulation of behavior that itself is not often punished by law. So a 16-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend can be suspended for “sexting” but they could not be suspended for actually having sex? That’s akin to imprisoning someone for killing people in the Grand Theft Auto video game, but not arresting them for murdering someone in real life. Kids will have sex, kids will talk about sex, whether they are actually doing it, fantasizing about it or just wanting it, and no amount of school legislation is going to change that.
A similar dynamic occurs with cyber-bullying. The truth is sometimes it seems like as Americans we aren’t happy until we come up with a new term to define an old crime. A home invasion is a robbery, cyber- stalking is still stalking and cyber- bullying is just bullying through other means. In general, bullying is something that schools should be aware of and work to control but there are limits. When violence is involved there should always be repercussions for kids, but ultimately you can’t do anything to stop one group of kids being jerks to another group in the cafeteria. The only difference between mean girls calling each other names in the cafeteria and doing it online is that you might have more witnesses, but unless the New York City Board of Education has found a way to outlaw being a teenage jerk I don’t see how this new proposed law will have much of an impact on anything.
Being a kid is tough, dealing with hormones your parents and other kids is part of the challenge, and schools do their best to help. But in some cases you can’t legislate maturity no matter how much of a “cyber-nanny” that state wants to be.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)