The shooting tragedy at Millard South High School in Omaha may give way to something we parents have fought for a long time. Reports that alleged gunman Robert Butler Jr. posted a warning of what he was going to do on his Facebook before shooting Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar and Principal Curtis Case have given rise to questions of whether this could have all been prevented.
The problem, of course, is whose responsibility it was to say something. Are all of Butler's Facebook friends unwitting accomplices to the murder of Kaspar, who died from her injuries, or the attempted murder of Case? Or should students' Facebook accounts be opened up to some sort of school review, so a responsible adult can assess the danger of the statements? Ah, therein lies the rub.
As it stands, Facebook accounts are private, most often accessed off campus. Provided the profile settings are locked, I like many civil rights advocates have surmised that kids deserve some semblance of privacy from school officials. Facebook to teens is an online version of a diary, one they open up to people of their own choosing.
Yet, it's become acceptable to use Facebook postings in courtroom settings, be it in custody cases, divorce cases, employment battles, even criminal cases. Last year, 15 teenage lacrosse players on Long Island were suspended from play by their school for photos that were on Facebook. And how soon we forget the role cyberbullying played in the deaths of a host of teenagers in America last year, and how hard we as parents have pushed to make schools take a harsher stance on bullying.
The kids themselves are often using Facebook for school-related activities. Around the same time as the suspension in Long Island, high schoolers in New Jersey were using Facebook to rally support for their fight against education cuts in their state.
As a proponent of protecting our kids' free speech in order to protect the integrity of the Constitution, I'm wary of requiring kids to open up their Facebook to their school administration. My fear is that it will turn off some of the very kids who use social networking to connect with people in a way they can't do in person, the shy kids, the sort of "social misfits" who have trouble in a standard school setting.
I'm equally afraid that allowing administrators' access to teens' Facebook will allow these adults to run rough shod over the kids' personalities. In school children need to be quiet, attentive, respectful. But they need an outlet somewhere, to test limits and see for themselves what works and doesn't in a social manner. I've been told by psychologists that it's children's peers who really put them in check when they have personalities that are not socially acceptable. Kids need to feel free to test the waters, and their friends need to feel free to respond in kind.
Butler's alleged Facebook status is chilling:
Everybody that used to know me I'm sry but Omaha changed me and (expletive) me up. and the school I attend is even worse ur gonna here about the evil (expletive) I did but that (expletive) school drove me to this. I wont u guys to remember me for who I was b4 this ik. I greatly affected the lives of the families ruined but I'm sorry. goodbye.
But teens tend to float a lot of things on Facebook, and it's hard to know what we should take seriously. If we called in the suicide teams every time a teen typed "FML" (f--k my life), they'd be on 24/7. And the sad fact is, the Facebook post didn't kill Vicki Kaspar. A gun did.
The tragedy in Omaha is heart wrenching for so many reasons: that someone had to die, that a mere child (Butler is just 17) had that sort of desperation within him -- sending him to allegedly kill and then commit suicide. We all want answers because we don't want to see it happen again. We will look to Millard South to see if there's anything we can do better with our kids. In the wake of the Columbine shooting, there were mass changes at schools across the country; I remember my local school changing in one day from an open, free-moving society to having every single door locked down.
But let's separate the knee jerk reactions from the reality. Let's not let one bad apple spoil the bunch. Kids need their space. They need their privacy. We can't police their words without policing their thoughts. Sadly, there will never be an absolute perfect way to prevent tragedy. But I'd rather live in a country that treats kids like human beings first and criminals second -- if and when they deserve it -- than the other way around. What about you?
Image via Facebook