The Student Becomes the Spy Master
A video of a recent tasering incident by a police officer against a college student gets posted on YouTube and creates a public outcry. With more and more students having access to camera phones, how do you balance maintaining discipline with documenting injustices on campus?
Karen Ellis of the Educational CyberPlayground posted a note to the WWWEDU discussion list about the student tasering incident that happened at UCLA last month. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a 23-year-old senior at the university, was asked to show his ID card at a university library. He failed to produce his ID, and police were called to the scene. An argument ensued and became violent; over the course of six minutes, a police office tasered Tabatabainejad five times. Several nearby students protested his treatment while another demanded the officer’s badge number; the office then threatened to taser that student as well.
While all of this was going on, yet another student had a cameraphone in hand, shooting video of the incident. The video was posted on YouTube and the website of the UCLA student newspaper. (Warning - the footage and language are graphic and possibly not appropriate viewing in front of students.) The YouTube video spread like wildfire, with more than 300,000 downloads from all across the Internet. Within 48 hours of the incident, hundreds of protesters gathered on campus to denounce Tabatabainejad’s treatment by the police, leading to an official inquiry.
Karen Ellis described this series of events as “the emergence of citizen’s media” in education. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, citizen media is a broad class of activities, both online and offline, through which average people take advantage of communications technologies to encourage civic participation and social action. “I consider this an excellent example of students using the power of the Net for political purposes and that it was extremely useful for teachers to see the immediacy of how fast communication happens,” she wrote.
Karen’s comment led to a response by online safety advocate Nancy Willard:
This reminds me of a story involving my daughter. There was a math teacher at her middle school who fortunately decided to retire. She really did not treat the students with respect, especially any of the more needy students. The school knew there were concerns. They had students complete questionnaires. They had people visit her class, but according to my daughter, she always was nice whenever someone was watching her. So the students cooked up a scheme. They were going to use one student’s video cell phone to capture images of this teacher doing what they did not like her doing. They never actually pulled this off. But it was interesting to me how 6th grade students understood the power of the technology to address such concerns.
This, in turn, generated another response by elementary school teacher John Lindner, who noted that such actions by k-12 students, in California at least, might constitute breaking the law. Replying specifically to the incident that almost occurred in Nancy’s daughter’s classroom, John stated, “In some areas, this could result in the suspension of the students involved.” Specifically, he cited two sections of the California Education Code:
48901.5. (a) The governing board of each school district, or its designee, may regulate the possession or use of any electronic signaling device that operates through the transmission or receipt of radio waves, including, but not limited to, paging and signaling equipment, by pupils of the school district while the pupils are on campus, while attending school-sponsored activities, or while under the supervision and control of school district employees.
51512. The Legislature finds that the use by any person, including a pupil, of any electronic listening or recording device in any classroom of the elementary and secondary schools without the prior consent of the teacher and the principal of the school given to promote an educational purpose disrupts and impairs the teaching process and discipline in the elementary and secondary schools, and such use is prohibited. Any person, other than a pupil, who willfully violates this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any pupil violating this section shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. This section shall not be construed as affecting the powers, rights, and liabilities arising from the use of electronic listening or recording devices as provided for by any other provision of law.
The first section summarizes the rights of school districts to regulate the classroom use of telecommunications devices in the possession of students. This legal code, and similar pieces of state law around the country, are used to frame the rules surrounding cell phones in school, but also extends to any other device that sends or receives a signal, from PDAs to wireless laptops. The second section, though, is perhaps more interesting, because it details unacceptable use of certain electronic devices - specifically, any kind of device that can be used to record something in the classroom. This might include a digital audio recorder, camera phone, video camera, laptop, PDA - pretty much any thing that includes a lens or a microphone. The language adopted into law takes the position that any use of these recording devices that don’t receive explicit permission of both the teacher and the principal are inherently disruptive of the teaching process. Students who thus use a recording device without official blessing could find themselves suspended.
Of course, there’s a big difference between acceptable behavior in higher education and K-12, with college students given much more freedom and latitude. And one might ask why a student might ever want to record something in the classroom without asking the teacher’s permission first. The scenario described above by Nancy is hypothetical in the sense that the students didn’t act upon it, but if they had, they wouldn’t have been the first. In May 1999, a pair of students secretly videotaped one of their teachers at Grant High School in Los Angeles. The students felt that the teacher was behaving inappropriately, yet they had no evidence they could supply to the school board. Recording the teacher on the sly, they felt, was their only recourse. After making the recording, the students handed the tape to the school board, which took two actions. First, they disciplined the students by suspending them. Second, they disciplined the teacher, who in turn filed suit against the district. Her case was based on the notion that the students had broken the law by making the recording in violation of Section 51512 of the California Education Code; therefore, her attorneys argued, the district shouldn’t be able to use the material against her in any disciplinary action. The state appelate court ruled against her:
A review of Section 51512 shows that it provides sanctions against violators [ie, students] but does not specifically prohibit entities such as the Board and District from using videotape recordings made by students in violation of the statute in disciplinary actions…. Section 51512 simply states that use of an electronic listening or recording device in a classroom is disruptive and impairs the teaching process and discipline in schools. Section 51512 does not state, nor does it imply, that videotapes such as the one made there cannot be used by school officials in review whether a teacher should be disciplined. To the extent Evens and United Teachers contend that Section 51512 should be amended to specifically make such a statement, this is a matter best taken up with the Legislature.
In other words, students should be prepared to face the consequences of using media technologies to record events in the classroom without permission, but that doesn’t mean that the recordings they make can’t be used by school authorities to make a case against someone. This particular incident occurred more than seven years ago, well before the advent of YouTube or the ubiquitous camera phone. But it’s probably just a matter of time before we start seeing similar incidents happen in K-12 classrooms. (Not a tasering incident, God forbid, but a student trying to capture something that others around them would prefer not be recorded.) Will students take the notion of rating teachers and raise it up a notch, capturing teaching practices for critiquing them online? Will other students use the techology to document bullying? Are there cases where any form of secret recording would be deemed acceptable? I could see some circumstances regarding bullying where the ends justifies the means, but other cases might be harder to justify. Then again, what if students feel they have a duty to expose unacceptable behavior of their peers, teachers or administrators? The two students suspended seven years ago clearly did - in their minds, they were performing a public service, and accepted the consequences. Might we see the birth of a new form of civil disobedience? -andy