An incident recently arose between students at Jesuit High School and Academy of the Holy Names that involved allegations of cyberbullying, homophobia, misogyny and assault.
It only involved a fraction of the students at two of Tampa’s most prestigious schools, but if stories are to be believed, it’s as bad as it sounds. A Jesuit student created two lists, accusing some of his fellow students of being gay — he used the worse derogatory term. The list then played a role in creating a conflict at the Academy prom, which resulted in a Jesuit student being asked to leave the prom.
Other Jesuit students tried to come to the defense of the student who made the lists with an Instagram photo pocked with offensive terms, profanity and a mocking of the #metoo movement. There are varying versions of how it devolved from there, some of which were shared privately with the Times.
I feel compelled not to let this pass — not because the young men need to be publicly exposed or the Academy girls need to be vindicated. It’s far too difficult for me to delve in the competing he said, she said accusations. We have to allow the schools to sort through all of that, and they’re not obligated to share their disciplinary measures with the media. I’m not sure they should.
But I hope that Jesuit and Academy, and every school administrator — and every parent — recognize this all reflects a larger problem. The intersection of social media, smartphones and a revival of disrespect have made being a teenager far more difficult than it was for me 36 years ago and even for my sons, the oldest having graduated high school just seven years ago.
"I think it’s absolutely more difficult to be a child or a teen than it was even 10 years ago," said Shea Quraishi, the interim executive director for Frameworks, a local nonprofit that promotes positive youth development. "Frighteningly, we don’t even know the long-term impact social media is having on their brains, social interactions and self regulation."
Something is happening with kids — not all, but some — and it’s not good. It’s not all new, of course. Students always have found ways to be cruel to their fellow classmates, but before the Internet, a nasty rumor circulated around the school. That was bad enough. Now it circulates around the world with the underlying permanence of a screenshot.
The day after I learned about the Jesuit/AHN issue, I attended the annual luncheon for Frameworks, which strives to help with an emphasis on social and emotional learning. I kept hearing solutions to this growing issue. Social and emotional learning may sound warm and fuzzy, but it should be a critical aspect of any school’s mission.
"SEL and character education are not trimmings, they are not decorations," teacher and best-selling author Jessica Lahey told the audience at the luncheon. "They are not a way to get people to come to your school and pay your tuition. They are not some add-on. SEL is at the base of everything we do."
Frameworks delivers its curriculum in classroom and after-school settings. It has a working agreement with the Hillsborough school district with a big emphasis on helping the students become more empathetic. Bullying, taunting and shaming often result from students lacking an understanding of how their words and actions can hurt others.
Quraishi said it’s best not just to discipline the offenders but to have them sit and face the targets of their abuse so they can see the hurt, feel the pain.
"From the social and emotional learning perspective, there’s no such thing as an isolated incident," said Quraishi, who has taught elementary school in four different states and holds a master’s in K-12 education from Stanford. "Children and teens need the tools to succeed socially, personally and academically.
"And in those moments when students make mistakes, the mistakes become learning opportunities that can guide the student towards developing emotional intelligence."
It may sound a bit lofty, but we can no longer say kids will be kids or dismiss such incidents as a speed bump along the road to graduation. The consequences of letting such behavior go unchecked can result in some irreversible outcomes for all involved.
The internet is making kids smarter, but it’s not making them wiser. They may act more adult with smartphones, but they aren’t more mature. These and other factors are eroding school as a positive experience for more students than you realize, and every educator needs to work to help kids navigate the social and emotional pitfalls that lie in our new world.
That’s all I’m saying.