What do you do if you’re a high school administrator and one of your students uses a personal Twitter account to criticize your state governor? What do you do if you’re the state governor who was criticized? How about the director of communications for the criticized governor? The answer might be “nothing,” but that was not the case last week in Kansas when Shawnee Mission East High School student Emma Sullivan used Twitter to criticize Kansas governor Sam Brownback.

Twitter @emmakate988: A High School Student Tweet Heard Round Kansas

On a school field trip to Topeka last week to learn more about state government, Emma sent the above tweet to her 65 Twitter followers. Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Governor Brownback’s director of communication, contacted Emma’s school administration. Upon returning to school, according to Dean Obeidallah writing for CNN:

Sullivan soon found herself in her principal’s office being scolded for nearly an hour. Bottom line: The principal has mandated the student write a letter of apology to the governor that is due Monday.

Thanks in part to mainstream media coverage of the event by ABC, CNN, and NPR, as of this writing Emma now has over 8200 Twitter followers. And, she’s so far refusing to comply with her principal’s directive that she write a letter of apology to the Kansas Governor.

What are the learning points in this situation, for students, school administrators, and directors of communication?

  1. Use social media for conversations, not harassment: The big mistake here was made by Sherriene Jones-Sontag, not by Emma Sullivan. Sherriene could have ignored the Tweet, or used Twitter for one of the things it does best: Facilitate conversations between real people. Why not ask Emma what she doesn’t like about Governor Brownback’s policies? Alex Knapp, social media editor at Forbes, is upset at Brownback’s cuts for the arts in Kansas as well as other programs. Maybe Emma is too? Sherriene should have ignored the tweet or used it as an opportunity to engage a civic-minded high school student in discussions about the politics of the day.
  2. High school students have free speech rights in the USA too: School administrators constantly walk fine lines when it comes to needs like school safety and student rights, and this situation highlights why it’s so important school officials don’t overstep their bounds. There’s a good reason school administrators study The Tinker Case in legal issues classes. Student free speech rights are restricted in some ways at school, but all student free speech rights don’t end at the schoolhouse door. It’s important we not only respect student free speech rights, it’s also important as educational leaders that we encourage students to participate fully as citizens in civil discourse. That participation can be more visible than ever, as this situation shows, and it’s important to make ‘teachable moments’ like this opportunities for constructive discourse rather than heavy-handed censorship.
  3. Your students are using Twitter: Are you? I just facilitated an “Introduction to Twitter” videoconference this morning for teachers in Palisades School District in Kintnersville, PA, via the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. We discussed the importance and relevance of social networking sites like Twitter to communication and literacy today, and this situation with Governor Brownback provides a case in point. It’s doubtful Emma thought, when she tweeted a week ago, that her words would be on mainstream media channels across the nation and she’d have over 8000 Twitter followers. But they are today, and she does now. Did any of her teachers at school, or other adults in her life, discuss Twitter with her and the importance of choosing our words carefully when they can be amplified at the speed of light on the “global stage” which is the World-Wide Web? I’m not sure, but there’s no time like the present for a ‘teachable moment’ about these issues.

Consider discussing this situation with your students this week. What “lessons learned” can they identify for Sherriene Jones-Sontag? For Emma Sullivan? For the school principal? For themselves?

Hat tip to Gail (@jayneway) for alerting me to this situation.

Update 10:45 pm CST 28 Nov: Governor Brownback issued an apology for this incident but did not directly mention Emma’s name in the statement. Emma Sullivan now has 13,786 Twitter followers. Governor Brownback has 3,349.

'salve-a-terra--twitter_4251_1280x800' photo (c) 2009, Danilo Ramos - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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On this day..

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  • http://twitter.com/newtechnetwork New Tech Network

    Well written post, we shared this on our FB page( https://www.facebook.com/NewTechNetwork) to hopefully get some conversation going.  Would Emma Sullivan have chosen better words if she had been using Twitter to communicate with legislators, experts and peers in her classrooms with guidance from teachers using social media, too?

  • Spambedam

    HOORAY for this girl’s courage in refusing to be intimidated by a couple of authoritarian tyrants. So far we can still get away with speaking truth to power, at least SOMETIMES. The more success such tyrants have suppressing free speech, the more they will do it and the more commonplace and acceptable it will become. It may seem trivial at first blush but is a fine example of the slippery slope toward tyranny.

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    I think your analysis of this case is over the top. No one is espousing tyranny here and there is no slippery slope to tyranny in Topeka or  Shawnee Mission East schools. Governor Brownback responded with an apology for this over-reaction by his staff, and I think it’s safe to say this has been a significant teachable moment for many.

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Thanks for sharing and letting me know! :-)

    I’m betting yes, she definitely would have chosen different words if she’d known a week later she’d have 13,000+ Twitter followers. I doubt she thought her tweet would reach mainstream media.

  • TonyP (GVSU)

    I think that too often technology is the scapegoat for just poor manners or social skills.  Whenever technology is not well received like it happens to be in my school, I find a lot of anecdotal stories as my boundaries. “If we give them computers they just look up inappropriate material” or “If we let them create material and publish it digitally they will use profanity and we will take the heat” or “If we allow twitter someone will bash a government representative and we will get blamed”  I think in the end the key isn’t the technology, it is the knowledge of appropriate outlets for political discussion.  I am positive that if put into an appropriate format (which can be twitter), directed at the right person (Governor or his staff), and written professionally, that this issue would have been up on a pedestal to show the power of twitter connecting us to our government and each other.  So, I say more knowledge on ALL mediums of communication and the professionalism that goes with uses your right of free speech.  Tyranny?  I think not.

  • http://amazeline.com Ian Summers

    That’s why social media is made because that’s where you rant your feelings when you’re just not comfortable writing it on a note. It’s your account and you can pretty much do anything with it. At least Emma’s rant woke the state governor’s attention. He’s gonna know something’s really wrong.

  • Frank

    Please forgive my ignorance about Twitter, but I’m very curious about the mechanism by which Jones-Sontag came upon Emma’s tweet in the first place.  Is there a keyword search across all of Twitter that Sontag was using repeatedly or was Sontag monitoring a finite number of Twitter accounts that had been identified for her in some way or was the tweet given to Brownback’s staff by one of Emma’s 60 followers or…?  Thanks in advance for any replies.

  • Pingback: Reflection Week 6, part 2, Moving at the Speed of Creativity | Taylor Fulton

  • Kenesharbrown26

    First and foremost, I commend her for her courage to express the way she feel and the fact the she is standing up for something she believe in. On the other hand, a lot of people including politics take social networking the wrong way. It was created to give people the opportunity to express the way they feel and their opinions. I did not know that opinions were illegal. Like Gibson stated in the video, if that was one of my students I would be happy that she would have something to say. 

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