The media regularly features pictures and short videos of the inside of schools and elsewhere that depict people engaging in behaviors or finding themselves in circumstances that appear counter to what is recommended by the CDC and other government entities. They may be pictures of students in crowded hallways, staff or students not wearing masks, examples of failure to practice good hand hygiene, or any number of other possibilities. The popularity of snapping and posting pictures and videos of unfolding situations means someone—a student, staff member, or other person— will likely find a situation they want to expose by recording and posting it.
Of course, we may be unaware of the situation or conditions. Or, we may know about the situation and are working to address the problem. Or, we may even be experiencing a staged activity intended to embarrass or create controversy.
Regardless, we can expect to immediately be confronted with pointed inquires and subjected to uncomfortable and often unfair assumptions. Before we find ourselves in these unfortunate circumstances, there are preparatory steps we can take to be ready and avoid unnecessary controversy.
First, review current student behavior codes to ensure that they are free of restrictions that no longer apply or make sense, would unduly restrict students’ First Amendment rights, or that otherwise likely would not stand up to legal challenges. Language related to possession and use of electronic devices at school and during school hours might be an example.
Second, identify elements or aspects of written student behavior expectations that are not consistently enforced. For example, if students are not to take and share photos of other students without their permission, do you and your staff regularly monitor and enforce this expectation? Is it even practical to determine whether all photos taken are with permission? Expectations that are stated but not enforced often carry little more weight than expectations that are not addressed.
Third, identify behavior code elements that extend beyond the reach of the school and may not be legally enforceable. Often, expectations of students that extend into their personal lives and beyond the confines of the school and school day are challenging to enforce. Behavior codes associated with cocurricular and extracurricular programs may be exceptions, but it is wise to consult legal counsel to be certain.
Fourth, review the expectations of staff relative to posting photos of students. Again, stated expectations are only useful if they are consistently enforced. Also, consider whether blanket permissions signed by parents for their children to be photographed extend to videos and photos that might convey images that are embarrassing or damaging to the reputation of the institution.
Obviously, even with this preparation you may find yourself responding to inquiries and accusations related to an unfortunate image or video. Here too, there are considerations and cautions to observe.
First, avoid panicking or reacting before you fully understand the situation and associated implications. If students are involved, be careful not to allow anger or embarrassment to push you to treat the situation as disciplinary and exacting consequences before the facts are known and implications are considered.
Second, delay making a statement or taking other action until you have enough information to support your actions. Rather, commit to learning what you can regarding the circumstances and potential implications of what you have been presented. Further, commit to making the situation right, if what has been posted reveals circumstances or practices that need to be addressed. If you are not completely certain about the correct steps to take, consult those in your institution who might provide good advice, and contact legal counsel for guidance.
Third, if you eventually determine that school rules were violated, you can take informed, measured actions that are consistent with stated and enforceable behavior expectations and avoid the necessity of having to “back track” on what has been said or done.
Fourth, be prepared for pressure to take immediate action and “second guessing” once you decide a course of action. Both responses are predictable. What is most important is that you take measured, informed, fair actions that hold the most potential to address the situation and avoid placing people or the organization in compromising positions as a result of your words or actions.