Did 30 students at a suburban Detroit high school deserve suspensions for joining the latest viral dance craze? Not according to a recent poll. Most people thought it was harmless fun.
Unfortunately, many school officials don’t agree. More than 100 teens from Florida to Minnesota have been suspended from school and extracurricular activities for creating or participating in their own videos and posting them online. (See NCAC’s statement in response)
Thousands have taken part in what has become a global phenomenon, dancing to the song “Harlem Shake” by DJ Baauer. Thanks to the craze, the song topped the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for weeks.
Why would school administrators come down so hard on students for this high-spirited and non-disruptive expressive behavior? Suspensions are usually reserved for egregious infractions, like violent behavior, cheating, or damaging school property. Even the parents of some suspended students expressed confusion and consternation, saying officials had overreacted.
The Harlem Shakedown is part of a larger debate over the authority of school officials to regulate online student speech—whether it occurs on campus or off. Teens have been disciplined for emailing, texting, tweeting, and posting on Facebook and YouTube. The Internet doesn’t stop at the school door—online activity done at home ends up on students’ phones and school computers, and the messages may very well relate to what’s going on in school—whether it’s criticism of teachers and administrators or rumors and mean-spirited comments about classmates. What’s a school administrator to do? What they do best: teach.
When schools suspend kids, they not only risk infringing on their free speech rights but also lose the opportunity to teach them responsible online behavior. Some schools are already taking the lead. At Connecticut’s New Canaan High School, social media is an integral part of the instructional program. Teachers and students use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Apps to teach lessons, collaborate, and do homework. Michelle Luhtala, who chairs the school’s library department, says these are the tools students “need to become 21st Century learners.”
Her point is well-taken. Some 93 percent of young people between the ages of 12 to 29 go online, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet Project. The solution, Luhtala says, is to embrace social media, educate kids on how to use it well, and show them how to become good digital citizens.
When our legitimate concerns about teen online activities escalate into exaggerated fears about new technology (David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, calls it “juvenoia”), children’s education can end up severely compromised. Young people grow and thrive when they can explore issues of interest, learn on their own terms, ask questions, and express themselves. It’s far more dangerous to stifle their ability to take advantage of opportunities for online communication and expression—and to learn to do so safely and responsibly—than to just let them boogie to “Harlem Shake.”