School officials’ dilemma: How, and when, to block social media
WESTPORT — Pervasive use of social media by students in Westport schools — and their impact on student lives in and outside classrooms — was scrutinized Monday by the Board of Education as it reviewed a student wellness plan.
After Director of Pupil Services Mike Rizzo outlined the wellness plan — covering topics such as bullying and suicide prevention, as well as intervention policies — board Chairman Michael Gordon asked what school officials can do to counter potentially harmful behavior, such as bullying.
“I understand that some of the apps, there’s not a technological solution so you can’t limit it, but the question is what about the ones that do have the technological capability to be blocked. Have you thought about that? What are your thoughts?” Gordon said.
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon jumped in and explained that it was an issue that reaches beyond school walls.
In cases where it is technologically possible, he said, officials “create a firewall around the schools. The problem is we can’t do it in their homes as well.”
The discussion came in the wake of the suicide last December of a 14-year-old Staples High School freshman, which prompted widespread speculation that social-media bullying may have been a factor in his death.
However, both school officials and police said at the time that they could find no evidence that bullying played a role in the incident.
However, Landon had also denounced those “who have used social media and other means of communication to assign blame” for the teen’s death. “The spread of misinformation is harmful to our community ... (and) is directly opposed to the civic, social and ethical responsibilities we wish to instill in our students,” he added.
James D’Amico, the school district’s director of secondary education who will be the new Staples principal later this spring, on Monday told the school board how use of the Yik Yak application was curbed at Staples. At the request of school officials, he said, the provider of the app — allowing users to post comments via their phones to a discussion thread anonymously — voluntarily put a shield around the school so the app couldn’t be used there by students.
As for blocking the most popular apps, D’Amico said students’ cellphones pose a hurdle for school officials since they can leapfrog most school-imposed blocks.
“Most websites, most social media that I would assume that question related to, we could block from our wi-fi. We have the capability to do that, but we make choices about that,” he said.
“The most obvious example is many years ago, at the high school, the decision was made to let Facebook be open, understanding there would be pitfalls when you’re dealing with teenagers and social media distraction ... Certainly with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) you open up that,” D’Amico said, referring to the school district policy on electronic devices.
“Even if we block particular websites, any person who has a cellphone can access those websites because they shut the wi-fi off and Verizon or AT&T takes over and they can access whatever they want on their device,” he added. “So the approach that we try to take is more about responsible use.”
Landon maintained that there is only so much the school district can do to limit potentially harmful social media use.
“Despite our best efforts, there are youngsters who know no limits in terms of utilization of social media to bully others, cyberbully if you will, attack them in different ways,” the superintendent said. “We have really had a wonderful relationship with the Police Department, if we get parents to cooperate with the Police Department, we’ve been able to undo some damage when it really gets to be bad and it happens.
Parents commented on what they believe individual teachers can do to help minimize the use of social media during a school day.
Sue Calger told the school board that one of her son’s teachers has a bin to collect students’ phones, where they remain until the end of the period and they leave the classroom.
“I think it’s brilliant and would be great if all of the teachers could require the students to do that,” she said.
Sheri Gordon also questioned the presence of cell phones in school. Citing the school district’s decision to block pornography and hate speech on wi-fi, she said, “In truth, if somebody has a device, they could take out their device and look at pornography or look at hate speech. The fact that they can take out their own device and look at things that we block is not enough of a reason not to block it.”