Late last spring, I came in for a nasty shock while going about my day as a teacher at Frank Church High School in Boise. A colleague of mine dropped by my room to tell me a student had secretly used his cellphone to record me reprimanding his buddy for cursing a blue streak in the hallway.

Administrators and school district lawyers had warned us about this, urging us to be aware of kid-directed surveillance. But when it happened to me I felt surprised and threatened. I didn’t doubt that I had spoken to the young man appropriately and with good cause, but anyone familiar with social media knows that video uploads carry within them the seeds of blowback.

Luckily, one of our school security folk was willing to collect my documentarian and bring him to my room to talk it over. He appeared to be somewhat surprised and threatened that I was holding him to account, but he agreed to write me an apology and to delete the video. Shaken but wiser, I went back to my day and didn’t give it much more thought until another in-house recording catalyzed a much larger audience.

Frank Church High School video

Video still of Boise School District YouTube.

Frank Church High School is the only alternative high school program in Boise, Idaho. Students attend for reasons ranging from typical teenage angst to more serious issues of addiction and homelessness. Regardless of their challenges, most graduate, but it can be pretty rough along the way. Teenage irrationality can be trying on the best of days, but when a student’s behavior is amplified by anger, misery or recklessness, even minor conflicts with authority can escalate pretty quickly.

One such situation crossed the line around 11:50 a.m. on April 25th when a school resource officer was escorting a young man off campus. Things went south when the student, instructed to leave for a litany of disciplinary reasons, resisted by first punching the officer in the face and then wrestling with him on the lobby floor. To make matters worse, the lunch bell rang, dozens of kids formed an audience, and someone used a cellphone to record and upload the struggle.

You can watch that video here:

Untethered from any deliberative context, the video went viral and spread like wildfire beyond the school. Tens of thousands of people saw it — at last count it’s been viewed 36,618 times — and at least one local television station used it for an evening broadcast. Viewed over and over by some students, the video fueled a lot of emotion, speculation and hostility inside and outside school that day. Administrators were compelled to practice damage control with the public, and teachers held debriefings with students after lunch, helping aggrieved kids process their feelings and opinions.

The video was uploaded immediately to YouTube without the participants’ knowledge, approval or agreement. Posted comments ran the gamut from simplistic to vicious, with the resource officer, the student and one employee in particular, a woman who tried to discourage the cellphone recording, attacked and demeaned for various reasons.

Needless to say, the video did virtually nothing to promote increased awareness of the overall function of the school, its place in the community or its service to students and their families. In fact, the only other Frank Church video on YouTube, a short piece written and designed to highlight the program’s devoted staff and inclusive atmosphere, has been viewed a (relatively) mere 2,428 times, and has elicited zero comments.

There are many things I love about the internet, cellphones and social media.

I think the astonishing ways in which technology has reshaped our social worlds, our social habits, practices and attentions, are in some ways useful and good. But the old truth of the double-edged sword haunts my attachment and stokes my skepticism. The dark side of technology — anonymous attacks, lurid voyeurism, one-sided solutions and cynical gamesmanship — is where my fear comes in.

Beyond the usual complaints about cellphone and social media’s power to distract students’ attention and to dramatize their social worlds, I am disturbed by increasing technological insults to privacy, fairness and voice. The right of rebuttal is a fundamental right in any civilized culture, but when distressing and painful moments are unilaterally broadcast on social media, balanced appraisals of facts or equal time for opposing perspectives are generally neglected in favor of mockery, judgment and, perhaps most fatally, abbreviated attention spans.

Public schools reflect, for good and for ill, the culture they serve and as far as cellphones go, teachers and schools have long since ceded the field. As a ubiquitous part of the culture and as powerful tools with reach and immediacy, they present opportunities and challenges for learning and for maintaining a secure and respectful environment. In and out-of-class cellphone-use policies must be articulated and enforced, even as some teachers try to include them as legitimate tools in lesson plans.

However, most teachers will tell you managing cellphones in class is at best a mixed blessing, often a frustration and sometimes an uphill battle. As miniature portals to the world, not to mention rigorously designed dopamine injectors, cellphones are heavyweights in the arena of attention and focus, and some kids find it virtually impossible not to respond — repeatedly and regardless of official policy — to the dings and buzzes that reinforce competing priorities.

Media and spin are old subjects of analysis and hand wringing. I realize that any attempt to criticize open-access social media suggests that I am old-fashioned or just — gasp! — old. On one hand, it is important for anyone experiencing a hierarchical and potentially unrestrained environment, e.g., a classroom, locker room or church, to have the ability and the tools to expose abuse, fraud or violence, but what about the other hand? What about all the situations where creating a social media post has nothing to do with holding power in check, but merely serves as mischievous harassment?

The student who created and posted the video of the Frank Church incident believed in his right to make the struggle between the school resource officer and the student public. But why should that incident be public? True, the officer is using physical force, but he does not appear to be abusing his power nor escalating the conflict, so why broadcast their distress? Does the videographer’s choice to make the struggle public trump the parties’ right to privacy?

The natural human inclination to share ideas and information is a blessing and a curse, especially when the ground between publicness and privacy is so bizarrely muddled. Technology has made it possible to publicly share every thought, image, opinion and impulse, and at the same time, rendered traditional privacy definitions and assumptions moot. Are we to resign ourselves, as Mark Morford recently wrote in SFGate, to “the age of acidic beat-downs and furious ennui, when every detail of your life is available to be savaged by the public domain, when… a lie tweets itself around the world a million times before the truth can even get its app together… ?”

In our brave new world of omnipresent social media, the rules of engagement are clear: anyone with a smartphone can be a paparazzi, empowered to unilaterally broadcast the lives, opinions and difficulties of others. So how should we respond in schools and in the public sphere? We can start by teaching and valuing alternate rules of engagement grounded in an ethic of privacy and fairness.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    The officer in this incident is a friend. I feel for him. He would never hurt a kid but he is always on alert, making quick decisions. When officers have 24/7 video on shirts, it will give a fuller picture. Wonderful post, Ms. Fretwell. Very thoughtful.

    • Josie Fretwell

      Thank you. I appreciate hearing from a friend of the officer involved.