Reid Sagehorn, a high school senior, was suspended and threatened with expulsion from Rogers High School in Minnesota in late January. The reason? His two-word tweet response posted on the Rogers Confessions website to the question, "Did he ever make out" with a 28-year-old teacher at the school. His answer, "Actually, yeah."
What followed was a spoiled senior year for Sagehorn, and his parents have now filed a federal lawsuit stating that actions taken by the Rogers High School principal, the superintendent, and the police chief, "forever tarnished his online reputation by linking him to a felony charge"; forced him to leave behind his lifelong classmates; transfer to another district with only four months left in his senior year; and destroyed "one of the most exciting and carefree times in a young person's life."
"Reid's post was meant to be taken in jest … He never intended for anyone to believe his post." He admitted the post was a mistake and tried to apologize to the teacher, but he was suspended for five days, and later 10 days, for violating school policy against "threatening, intimidating or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member," according to the lawsuit.
While it's true that Sagehorn's senior year was ruined, are the principal, superintendent, or police chief the ones responsible? I don't think so. They were only called in to clean up the mess after the real damage had been done.
Then who is responsible? There are several likely culprits.
There's Reid who posted the "sarcastic", or intentional, or thoughtless (take your pick) tweet written by a high school senior who may think he's all grown up; has all the answers to life's big questions; and is just marking time until he finally graduates in June. Certainly, he's responsible.
There's the teenage brain which goes through a period of massive reorganization that begins in pre-adolescence and can last until the late teens or early 20s. During this time, the most critical part of the brain, the cortex, develops 95 percent of its capacity. Since the cortex is responsible for our ability to make decisions, solve problems, regulate emotions, and control impulsive behaviors; the adolescent brain is similar to a moving car without a driver.
And then there are Reid's parents. The ones who quickly placed the blame on others for their son's actions and the "harsh" consequences he was forced to endure. They were so outraged by their son's suspension and self-imposed exile to a foreign school district, they felt compelled to file the lawsuit seeking punitive damages in the form of a financial settlement from those they deemed responsible.
Maybe they named the wrong parties in the lawsuit. Nowhere is there any mention of their wrongdoings, actions, or in this case, inactions. And honestly, are these really "harsh" punishments, or appropriate and reasonable consequences for Reid's behavior.
The truth is this situation demands more attention, not less - but certainly not about some lawsuit, or who's to blame, or who ruined one pretty typical high school student's senior year.
What's written on the internet lasts forever – and with a click of a button what was meant as a simple personal message or photograph can be, and often is, forwarded to thousands or millions of others.
Ordinary everyday conversation between teenagers is often aimless and consists of thoughtless comments, gossip, and even hollow threats. Before social media became so pervasive, they had little impact outside of a very small circle of friends. Not anymore. These mindless comments have caused schools to be shut down, careers to be destroyed and lives to be shattered.
Laws have even been established for these specific situations. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted a law criminalizing the transmission of sexually explicit images by minors. Under the state's sexting law, it is a crime for a minor (anyone between the ages of 12 to 18) to send an electronic message with a nude picture of themselves or anyone else between the ages of 12 and 18.
In Florida, two girls, ages 12 and 14, were arrested and charged with a felony in the suicide death of a 12 year-old classmate. Her death is alleged to have resulted from their cyber-bullying.
Stories like Reid's and the young girls in Florida hit the media for a few days, generate a lot of outrage, and just fade into cyberspace. What they really should be is a catalyst for serious and sustained discussions about teens, the internet, and the law.
Perhaps the best way to observe Facebook's 10th birthday this year is for all of us to first educate ourselves and then our children in the proper use and handling of the most seductive, addictive, and perhaps powerful form of communication since the invention of the printing press – social media.
In just one decade the way the entire world communicates has changed. So have the rules, the laws, and the impact one simple "two-word tweet" can cause countless people.
For more information:
Protecting Your Online Reputation and Identity from KidsHealth
Raising Digital Citizens from the National Cyber Security Alliance