Digital Citizenship, Free Speech and “The Brampton 9”

24 Nov


On Wednesday Ontario education was dragged in the shifting debate over students, privacy, free speech and the internet.

Nine students in Brampton, Ontario were told to stay home after The Dufferin-Peel District Catholic School Board found out they’d “used Twitter to make inappropriate comments about teachers” the previous weekend.

This is just the latest incident in a growing trend, as educators try to navigate the minefield that students and social media has become.

Some examples:

There are lots of new issues to consider. Here are three key ones:

1) Digital Citizenship: What responsibility do schools have to educate and prepare students for the “digital future” and how best do we do that?

Many students, used to texting, are missing the shift required when using social media. It’s easy to think that messages on twitter are part of a private conversation, when they aren’t. We need to help students understand that online communication is public and that means a different set of standards and expectations from private.

The consequences of not understanding this are significantly more than a few days suspension. People are increasingly judged personally and professionally by their digital footprint, losing jobs due to “inappropriate use of social media“, prevented from getting jobs because of past ‘digital mistakes’, or losing relationships. We need to help students understand this.

2) Free Speech: Can schools really restrict student’s free expression outside school? Should they?

In the Brampton case the comments and threats were seen as cyberbullying and so fit under the school’s responsibility to prevent such behaviour. But does it stop there? What about when a student makes statements that oppose the school or are controversial? What if students at a Catholic school tweet in support of abortion or anti-religious views? What then? What if a student’s online behaviour reflects badly on the school, but doesn’t involve the school in any way? If a student appropriately expresses support for an unpopular position does the school need to respond?

3) Deeper Causes: What does this all mean in the bigger picture?

Dana Boyd has pointed out that none of this behaviour is new. Students have “trashed” teachers and fantasized about blowing up the school for generations. The difference is that their conversations are now happening in social media, where it is recorded and displayed.

We have a window into students’ thoughts, attitudes and emotions about teachers and schools. What do we do with that? Do we ‘shoot the messenger’ and try to suppress those views? Or do we take advantage of it and ask the harder questions?

Why were these students so angry with/about their teachers? What does that mean? Will we listen when students have things to say that we don’t agree with or want to ask difficult questions? Will we honor their right to express their views while recognizing that they aren’t adults and will make many mistakes?

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

7 Responses to “Digital Citizenship, Free Speech and “The Brampton 9””

  1. @tk1ng November 24, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    The other issue Is: DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING?!?!?

    These… very ignorant (that was hard) students didn’t realize that twitter was a PUBLICATION platform?

    From the CP24 article in the first link above:
    “Many of them expressed concern over Twitter about having their tweets checked while tweeting from outside school property.
    “I don’t feel safe on Twitter anymore,” one Twitter user said.
    “We are being oppressed because of our tweets,” said another.

    Over your tweets being checked? You published them to the world, or didn’t you know that? This isn’t facebook sparky (not that you know anything about your privacy settings on there either).

    You don’t feel safe on twitter any more? Because what you write can be read by others? Gotta ask again, do you have any idea what it is you’re doing?

    You’re being oppressed because you attack someone else personally by publishing your offensive comments globally?

    There is a serious lack of awareness in how social media works in this.

    Sorry officer, I didn’t know that the gun could go off and kill people, I’m innocent!

    A student the other day said (with a snort), “you’re always so polite on social media.”
    I responded, “… and you’re not. Who do you think sees that?”
    He: “just my friends.”
    Me: “nope, anyone and everyone.”

    Until we take crafting digital footprints seriously, you’re going to see clueless digital natives sticking their foot in it again and again…

    • ballacheybears November 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Very true. Many students are used to SM being a ‘teen dominated’ space with their norms and acceptable uses. As that changes, as more adults enter that space and the norms start to change they’ll need a lot of help to adapt.

  2. jpkitchener November 25, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    I think that it is too easy to lay blame in these situations. We struggle to understand teen culture and truly understand why they are acting in a certain way. Often, as danah boyd highlights, how they conceptualize social media and privacy is very different than adults.
    We need to do better as adults. We need to directly tech these skills in authentic environments. Teens will never learn skills throw posters, assemblies, and teacher lectures.
    How well are we actually doing this? Not very well in my opinion.

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) November 26, 2012 at 7:38 am #

      A complicating factor in this is that we are charged with responsibility for this but aren’t the experts. When a teen tells us that’s not how things work in social media can we really say they’re wrong with any degree of certainty. In many cases there are no hard and fast rules here.

      • jpkitchener November 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

        That is true however I’m not sure that we need to be.
        The structure of a social skill lesson (which can easily be transfered to digital citizenship skills) can allow for student input when developing socialyl appropriate norms for behaviour. Following this, you can practice and model these norms together in an online forum while giving feedback about how well the students are following the mutually agreed upon norms.
        The next issue is connecting with students online – I get that. Nevertheless, there are amazing opportunities for all grades to use Edmodo to help take out the fear.

        Very interesting discussion! Thanks for posting.


  1. Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work « Looking Up - February 8, 2013

    […] The Brampton 9 students wouldn’t insult their teachers over the PA system at school. Students wouldn’t engage in many of the negative online behaviors that they do if they understood that they are sharing with the whole world, not just their friends. They don’t need a new set of rules, just to apply the rules they already know to their digital behavior. […]

  2. Kids and Tech: A Levelled Article Review | Dundas Valley Montessori School - July 16, 2013

    […] teacher Andrew Campbell posted an article on his blog at the end of last year entitled “Digital Citizenship, Free Speech and ‘The Brampton 9′,” in response to the suspension of 9 students in Brampton over comments they had posted on […]

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