Posted Online: March 25, 2013, 3:02 pm

Editorial: Seize teaching moment

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Students who send explicit photos of themselves and others could face serious consequences. Only a few instances of “sexting,” as it is called, have been reported in District 205.
Here we are again waxing nostalgic for the days when graffiti scrawled on a bathroom wall or words whispered in a high school hallway were the most common threat to a teen's reputation.

As many a responsible grownup who once found themselves in such circumstances will tell you, there is life after a bad high school reputation. But that may no longer be the case thanks to the explosion of technology and social media, where a single moment's indiscretion can stain a life forever.

That's been on our minds thanks to two stories in the news last week: one in the Quad-Cities, and the other, far more heinous, originating in Steubenville, Ohio.

First, here at home, we learned that high school boys were trading nude pictures of female students via cell phone. The matter was brought to the attention of police -- and we pray parents who are paying attention -- by Moline schools. We applaud school leaders for treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves, and for promising to do more. "We will sit down and talk to the police department and brainstorm and see what else we can do from a student-education and a parent-education perspective," said superintendent David Moyer.

We hope that discussion extends far beyond a single school district's boundaries. Indeed, this episode wasn't confined to the Moline district. Neither did the exchanges of pictures happen during school hours, yet Moline school officials wisely are seizing the chance to confront the sometimes terrible consequences of placing unfathomably far-reaching technology in the hands of young people not yet mature enough to make smart choices.

We wish we could beat it into kids' heads that in cyberspace nothing is ever dead. Ask young adults who tried to get into a great college or land that sought-after job what they think about "innocent" Facebook postings after a Google search cost them that job or that college admission.

As the Washington Post's Kathleen Parker noted in a column Sunday, "Endowed with miraculous gadgetry and fingertip technology that allow reflex to triumph over reason, millions of young people today have the power to parlay information without the commensurate responsibility that comes with age, experience and, inevitably, pain.

"The ease of cellphone photography and videography promotes a certain removal from circumstances, thrusting all into the bystander mode that leads to a massive shirking of responsibility and perhaps even a lack of cognitive awareness of one's own part in the moment."

Ms. Parker was writing about a terrible Ohio gang rape by high school student athletes, which generated photos of the passed out drunk Virginia high school girl. She was used for sport, not just by her rapists, but all those who "enjoyed" her violation on social media. Ms. Parker was examining the impact of the Internet on what psychologists call the "bystander effect". In a nutshell that means, the more people who view a wrong, the less likely any of them are to act to stop it. Indeed, police believe that many saw those Q-C nude photos, but apparently only one teen came forward to tell authorities about them.

Teaching kids why sexting is wrong is only part of the job. We must also convince teens that they have a responsibility to stop such wrongs when they see them. In a caring and civil society there are no disinterested bystanders.
Neither of those jobs is easy, of course. And despite what many think, protecting our kids' on the Internet and outside the classroom is NOT the sole responsibility of schools, which we already ask to do far more than we should.

Schools can and should lead. And districts like Moline do. But that's not enough.

"We are trying to educate them to make good decisions and to pause before they send things," said Moline High School Principal Dan McGuire. "A lot of people have expectations of the school dealing with such issues, but we are all responsible, communitywise, for the well-being of our kids."

It is the responsibility of all of us to seize this teaching moment and begin the discussion with the teens we know today.

We all can help ensure that a single stupid decision does not destroy a young life forever.