Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tell Your Children: Words Have Meaning

I say that here, over and over, but with two regional stories about students who are misusing words in social media, it bears saying again.

I think the issue may be that either parents or schools are not helping kids to understand that certain words are incendiary and considered hate speech.  (Maybe schools need to have assemblies with skits to explain this or perhaps Ballard's great film/video program could produce some videos.) 

Many students know about the First Amendment and may believe they can say whatever they want to whoever they want.  There are countless court cases to prove that belief to be incorrect.  One of the easiest ways to explain it this concept, even to younger students, is to talk about not being able to cry, "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  Speech that can incite is open to legal action.

One story is the situation at Western Washington University from a couple of weeks ago that started around a discussion about whether their mascot, a Viking, is representative enough for their population.  As things do happen on social media, a lot of racially-charged statements - mostly anonymous - went out.

There had been a claim that during this back-and-forth, the student body president, who is African-American, had called some white students "baby KKK."  That led to one student saying online at Yik Yak, "Let's lynch her."  He removed that statement very quickly but many people saw it including the student body president who was rightly frightened.  Screenshots were taken by one student who turned them in to the university president.   

They did track down the student who made the statement who is a 19-year old white male and he is being charged with malicious harassment, a felony punishable for up to five years in prison.  He was also suspended from WWU.  The student admits doing making the statement but quickly took it down because he "didn't like the way it sounded" and said he felt it could make the student body president feel threatened.

The other story that happened in August but was reported this week is about two white students at Edmonds-Woodway High School who went online and threatened to kill black students at the school. 

From the Times:
The two boys, ages 15 and 16, told police they were “just trying to be funny” when they posted the racially charged comments threatening black students at their school in an online-chat room, according to a news release from Edmonds police.

In posts that date to August, they also referenced lynchings and posted descriptions of how they intended to kill one of their targets, it says. 

The proposed victims were named by those students in direct threats.  They also threatened the entire school saying they would leave "dead bodies all over the school."  

The two students have been expelled and were arrested, also on malicious harassment charges.

Here's the key message to parents to tell your students and it comes from the Times story from the police officials involved:

While there is no indication so far that the suspects had access to weapons, Hawley said police take these kinds of threats “at face value.”

“Our assumption is it’s going to be a legitimate threat and … if you make those kinds of threats, we’re going to assume you’re going to carry them out,” Hawley said.

While we all know that kids (and adults) can sometimes get upset and say something like, "I'm so mad I could kill her" and not mean it, school officials probably won't see it that way.

Threatening statements are not going to be considered funny. 

This is the time we live in and it's important to guide your children in understanding why some statements can be dangerous to both the speaker and the subject.

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