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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

Learning from Inappropriate Content on Our School Hashtag

It would be a lie to say that giving students some social media voice in our school went smoothly from the start. When we began using #oewolfpride during the spring of 2014, we really didn’t have much of a plan in place for promoting it or monitoring the feed, and we certainly had not had many conversations about what to do if students posted inappropriate content using the #. What our team did value, however, was giving students voice in the school, encouraging them to be part of the school community in a variety of ways, and connecting to kids where they are. Luckily, our team also felt comfortable taking risks and knew that trying new things will sometimes result in a stumble or two. If you read my previous post about getting the # started, you know that we decided to promote the feed by displaying a page across the televisions in the school cafeteria. After the first two lunch hours went very well, I was feeling great! Unfortunately, during the third lunch period, someone decided to test our tolerance.

I was watching the Twitter feed from my phone when I saw a topless photo of Katy Perry flash onto my screen. The words “#oewolfpride” accompanied them. Shocked, I immediately took off for the cafeteria and pulled the plug on the Tweetbeam feed. Turning back to my own phone, it was easy to see who posted the image. The student used both his first and last name on the account and his profile picture was a clear, close up image of his face. I screen captured both the Tweet and his user information and made my way to the principal’s office. I met with the deans and the principal, showed them the content, and immediately began crying. While I expected that a kid or two might have something negative to say about the school, I never once thought some one would have the audacity to tweet out a topless girl’s photo to the entire cafeteria. I felt like the whole incident was my fault.

The deans agreed this boy would need to be suspended from school. His actions were inappropriate, and as a senior, he really should have “known better.” Ironically, when we pulled the boy into the office to talk, he really couldn’t understand why we would label the picture as “pornography” and claimed he was just trying to be funny. Our school resource officer came in and spoke with him about the implications an 18 year old could face for sharing pictures like this with minors – specifically, those younger students who saw the content. Even after the conversation, the young man was defensive, defiant, and could not seem to understand why he was being punished for a “joke.”

Of course, this incident got all of the administrative team talking. Should we scrap the idea of the # altogether? Was it really worth the headache of monitoring the content and punishing all of those who had a misstep? Then again, upon reflection, we realized that we never really clearly explained our expectations for the # beyond a few poster advertisements. Furthermore, it was clear from this student’s reaction that the use of social media for something beyond sharing random content with friends had never really crossed his mind.

After consulting with Jason Markey, 2014 NAASP Digital Principal of the year, and founder of #leydenpride, we decided not to throw away the idea of a school hashtag, but to use the missteps our students might make as an opportunity to open up dialogue with them about the importance of a positive digital presence.

As is to be expected, almost every student in the school that day had heard about the lunchroom incident. What we did not expect, however, was their reaction. #oewolfpride quickly filled up with comments like, “Our school finally does something cool, and people have to ruin it” and “This is why we can’t have nice things.” The administration team just knew we could not let this one incident keep us from keeping the # alive, but also knew we needed to be more clear with students regarding expectations. That afternoon, @EASTprincipal, Dr. Louis Lee, and I scripted and filmed this short video. It was Tweeted out, put on Facebook, played on our student announcements and was shared with parent groups.

Dr. Lee decided he would take the same approach as Jason Markey, and handle inappropriate content on our school hashtag by sitting a student down and having a conversation with them about their choices. After the initial fiasco in the cafeteria, he only had to talk with a handful of others, most of whom were not necessarily posting inappropriate content, but were using the hashtag to share jokes or images totally unrelated to the school. Within a few weeks, the students really seemed to catch on to our expectations, and the Tweets and Instagram pics came pouring in!

I wrote this post because sometimes bloggers and Tweeters make the mistake of only sharing their successes. As educators, though, we know that sometimes success only comes after a few failures. Choosing to broadcast the live Tweetbeam in the cafeteria that day was a risk, for sure. But fortunately, that mistake helped us see just how much the students really wanted to continue using the #, gave us some perspective on the ways students have often viewed social media, and offered us the opportunity to model positive media use and digital branding to students in a collaborative, authentic way.

When you take a risk, you might make a mistake, but without risk, the rewards are not nearly as sweet. When we chose to keep the school # going, amazing things happened — things that far outweighed that one Tweet, on one day, that could have meant the end of #oewolfpride if it weren’t for the awesome people who chose to keep moving toward success even after perceived failure.

Read some of the success stories related to #oewolfpride here:

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