As a middle school assistant principal I encounter various incidents throughout the week which involve acts of "teen meanness." Our teens are accustomed to expressing themselves via social media. However, I often find that this form of communication, although wonderful in many ways, may be creating young people who have lost, before they even built, the ability to communicate disappointment face-to-face. Adolescents of today choose to express their disappointed and/or insecure feelings using their cell phones rather than their own voices. They feel safer to criticize, and the criticism comes out plain ‘old mean. It can even come out in the form of extreme cyber bullying, simply by using the letter keys on a cell phone.
As an administrator to tweens I know that students will make mistakes. They will occasionally “try-out” being mean. But just because I understand this will happen does not mean we don’t demand a student learn from their own mistakes. I want to be sure that I send our students on to high school and into the world as citizens that can learn to take responsibility for their mistakes, to face the person they hurt, and to apologize sincerely and move forward.
We take steps here at Jefferson to help our students take responsibility for their online voice:
1. We don’t downplay the incident. When inappropriate incidents involving social media are brought to our attention, we at Jefferson handle them with extreme seriousness. We don’t brush them under the table or accept it as “tweens will be tweens.” Hurtful words online corrupt our learning environment on site.
2. We provide students sentence stems, sentence phrases, to help them say what they need to say. When students who choose to engage in inappropriate cyber behavior are referred to my office, you can often hear the student in my office begin the discipline process with, “I take responsibility for..." This first step in moving forward allows our students the opportunity to realize their actions and words have a reaction. It is powerful to witness a student hear their own inappropriate words aloud for the first time.
3. We provide a safe environment, with a mediator who cares about them, for students to resolve conflict face-to-face We care about how our students grow. For some, that means growth as an academic learner; for others it means growth as their own conflict managers and social-emotional learners. It is powerful and perhaps life-changing, for students to face their victim, assume responsibility for their words and actions, and hear the pain they caused.
Last week, I had one of the proudest moments as an administrator, and it wasn’t because we avoided a problem entirely, but because a student handled that problem in a way that showed growth:
In the midst of lunch time office chaos this student entered my office, sobbing. Through her tears, once she was able to articulate, she said that she knew I was investigating a cyber-bullying incident, therefore, admitted, "I don't know if I'm here because I'm scared you will eventually find out or if I just need this to stop. I can't sleep or eat!" This student created a false Instagram account and had been bullying a particular student on the account. "Miss C, I don't care about my punishment I just want to do what you have taught us: take responsibility and face the student I hurt."
I waited for what, probably to her, seemed a teen lifetime. Then I told her that I loved her, that I was proud of her for taking responsibility, and that it was time to ask for forgiveness and move forward. That afternoon I brought both her and the victim to my office. It was then that I witnessed two adolescents handle an extremely adult situation with great respect.
Even at this young age, our students can learn that our virtual words will always have an impact on another human being.
As an educator and parent, we know that all children make mistakes, even seemingly mean mistakes, and that inevitably, many students hurt people around them or at least try to. It’s the reality of middle school.
I, too, will assume my responsibility and teach our children that when we do hurt someone, we will need to make this world better by assuming responsibility and facing those we've hurt. By taking responsibility, each student, each time, creeps closer and closer to become better adults.
Ivonne Contreras is an Assistant Principal at Jefferson Middle School. Prior to that, she was a classroom teacher specializing in math. She has taught K-8, all in SGUSD, for almost 18 years. Ivonne studied both at LaVerne and APU, and comes from a family of passionate educators.