Just because the rant’s legal doesn’t make it right
A California high school student, who, according to Mashable was upset over his homework load, griped about his teacher on Facebook. That's Wrong No. 1.
His school suspended him. That's Wrong No. 2.
His mother defended his post as "venting." That's Wrong No. 3.
It turns out that no one was right in the incident, though the triple play could serve as a cautionary tale for other teens tempted to air their grievances online.
The problem wasn't so much that Donny Tobolski wanted to complain. Even his defenders, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, recount an electronic rant that most reasonable people would agree is in poor taste. His teacher is a “fat a** who should stop eating fast food, and is a douche bag,” he wrote.
The school district then suspended him for what administrators were calling "cyberbullying." After the ACLU got involved, officials agreed to expunge the suspension, saying that it didn't rise to the level of "causing a disruption to the school environment." That still might not be the right standard. According to the ACLU, the disruption has to be "material and substantial" - embarrassing a teacher doesn't seen to fall into that category. Also, California education law prohibits punishing students for off-campus conduct - Tobolski created the post at home, using his own computer and network.
Then came Tobolski's mother who, while saying that she didn't want her son talking to an authority figure with words such as the ones he used on the Facebook post, also told the San Francisco Chronicle that he "was just venting like the rest of us used to do, sitting on the grass at lunchtime. Students will always talk about their teachers."
Indeed students will talk about teachers, just as adults will talk about bosses. As long as they do it outside of school, there's nothing illegal about that. The jury's still out on whether it's a fireable action in the workplace. Personally, I've always found that venting is nonproductive. That's not to say that I don't do it once in a while, but usually either approaching the subject of the vent or agreeing to disagree and going on with my life works much better.
And just because it's legal does not make it smart.
Google Donny Tobolski's name, and every entry on the first two pages save one is about the name-calling post. His mother says he's an honors student and a good athlete, and I hope those attributes outweigh an incident that any potential employer can immediately turn up in only a few keystrokes.
It's tempting to blame Tobolski's screed on a climate where hostile words and crude insults increasingly are becoming verbal currency for some, but that would be letting him off the hook too easily. It's just as tempting to blame school officials' actions on a climate that says no transgression, not matter how small, can go unpunished. But that would be letting them off too easily.
What we have hear is a massive, collective failure to think.
Tobolski failed to consider either the feelings of the person he was insulting or the long-term consequences of his actions. The latter will last a lot longer than a one-day suspension.
School officials failed to consider how petty they would appear when they suspended a student that they didn't have the legal right to suspend.
And the parent failed to consider that her defense of "venting" makes a mockery of her claim that she didn't like her son disrespecting authority figures.
I suppose the school officials are most deserving of the SWAT, because the kicked off the whole hoo-ha. They should Stop Wasting America's Time with their breathless pursuit of zero tolerance.
But, really, no one's blameless in this one.
Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.