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How a viral video landed at least one elementary student in handcuffs

For better or worse, we live in a world where we should expect any decision we make, good or bad, to be caught on camera.

Countless school districts have been forced to confront the consequences of a controversial cell phone video. Sometimes videos posted to social media help school leaders identify students who run afoul of the rules. In other cases, officials have used cell phone video footage to present evidence of alleged abuses committed by school resource officers and others inside of school buildings.

A school cell phone video again made headlines this week, when footage surfaced of a group of elementary-aged students in Tennessee allegedly bullying a classmate outside of school. A New York Times story detailing the incident said that at least 10 schoolchildren—all under the age of 12—were arrested for the altercation, which took place off of school grounds.

While the fight happened off school grounds, the arrests reportedly took place in school, incensing several parents, community members, and others who contended that law enforcement, and perhaps certain school officials, went too far in an attempt to make an example out of the alleged offenders.

Criminalizing students?
If you haven’t seen it already, the video features a group of school-age children taunting and pushing a young boy for nearly two minutes on a Murfreesboro, Tenn. street.

School district officials say their authority is superseded by that of law enforcement or the Department of Children Services, even on school grounds. But such claims, true as they may be, did little to deflect criticism from members of the school community.

The situation was exacerbated when word spread that at least one student was led away by police in handcuffs.

The charge? According to police, many of the children who were present during the assault were accused of being “criminally responsible for the conduct of another.” In other words, the children didn’t step in to stop the fight.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, told the Times: “It is wholly unacceptable to haul children away from school in handcuffs for a charge that does not actually exist. The growing trend of criminalizing students—particularly students of color—within our education system must stop.”

As community members, including the affected students’ parents, lobby to have the charges dropped, the local police chief has vowed to take seriously, and investigate internally, any complaints about the department’s handling of juvenile cases.

Starting a dialogue
No matter how the controversy shakes out, school districts across the country should consider this case as they evaluate their own approaches to student safety and discipline.

Schools, not unlike local police departments, are under ever-growing scrutiny when it comes to their treatment of students. The emergence of social media and smartphones adds another layer of complexity to the challenge. Bullying is wrong—and effective prevention and education is needed to help keep children safe. But is it possible to go too far?

What better time than now to have a real discussion about your school or district’s approach to student discipline? Ask your community for feedback to better understand where they stand on the issue. And use that feedback to think long and hard about your own policies and procedures. Are you too strict? Not strict enough? Have you accounted for the emergence of smartphones and other tools in bullying detection and prevention? Does your school or district have polices in place to deal with these sorts of incidents with or without assistance from the local authorities?

How does your school approach student discipline in the age of social multimedia? Tell us in the comments.

Want to start a constructive dialogue about discipline and bullying with your school community? Here’s one way to hear what your community thinks.