Today’s guest blog comes from Bill Olsen, Principal of Rutland High School in Rutland, VT. Rutland’s Superintendent is AASA member Mary Moran, former member of the AASA Executive Committee.

Ten years ago, I taught Social Studies in the same high school in which I currently serve as principal. Teaching sophomores, I could not avoid a small sense of apprehension whenever we started a new project. With the goal of developing creativity and engagement while learning the required skills of history, there came the risk of students not performing up to expectations when the teacher stepped away from center stage. Inevitably though, with enough structure and guidance, the challenge and the chance to be creative and more self-directed produced a stronger interest in learning. Projects nearly always finished well, and I was glad to have taken the risk.

Ten years later, we hear a lot about how schools need to develop student voice; about how learning should be relevant and meaningful; about how we want students to be independent thinkers, learners and people who will “take action” to change their world for the better. It all came together for us at Rutland High School in Vermont on December, 2014, when the student body made some adult decisions on how to stand up to cyberbullying.

It was a real surprise that by the end of the school day on December 3, many of our students were emotionally damaged by words written on social media, in a forum that seemed to appear literally in just a few hours. On that morning, students started coming to teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors, complaining about the very rotten comments made about them and their friends on a new forum, the After School App. We had dealt with this kind of bad behavior before, but what made this app so dangerous and harmful was the nature of its structure. To be allowed access to the message wall dedicated to our high school, one had to possess a Facebook account, identified as a student at the school. Postings were also anonymous. Clearly, the software engineers who produced this tool wanted to keep out adult supervision.

They also played upon the worst instincts of human nature. Anonymous postings allowed commentary to run wild, owing to the lack of ownership over what was said. And even though many of our upperclassmen described the entries as “stupid,” there developed an interest in downloading the app, “just to see what all drama was about.” Students relayed to the adults that obscene or provocative pictures and videos could be posted. The app also supported surveys that focused on individual students, asking peers to rate each other on dubious personal distinctions.

Rutland High School’s response to the app evolved almost as quickly as the app appeared. Events in school were serious enough to send a letter home to parents that afternoon, describing the issue and asking parents to partner with us by talking to their children about what happened, reinforcing an understanding of the responsibilities that come with using a tool as powerful as a smartphone. Our school safety team also met to review events, to make plans for next steps, and especially to identify and help students who had suffered the most.

But on the morning of December 4, we put the responsibility of resolving the damage back on the students. Administrators and counselors first met with influential students: team captains and leaders in student government, clubs, and activities. We asked them to address the issue with their peers on our televised daily announcements. They embraced the challenge without hesitation. On camera, a couple of adults spoke first, but it was the students who won the day. With about 20 colleagues behind them, five students added their mature voices, asking their peers to delete the app and to support their classmates.

Then with one more request, the tide turned. The group presenting on camera challenged the school to participate in a Positive Post-it day, an idea to counteract cyberbullying that we had heard about from other schools. That resonated with our students. A year prior in a whole school assembly, they listened to anti-bullying advocate John Halligan speak to their power to end bullying, “Be an ‘upstander,’ not a bystander.” Provided with stickie notes in various offices, students wrote uplifting comments, leaving them on office windows, lockers, and classroom doors. Some were personal, “Mrs. Foley has a heart the size of Alaska.” Some were instructive, “Stay classy, RHS!” Some made curricular connections, “Tout le monde est beau!” All of them pointed the school in the right direction, “Stop everything that you are doing right now and SMILE!”

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That brought the mood around 180 degrees, yet even on the following day, some students reported that while diminished in volume, the negative comments on the After School App still existed. Again, students took the next step. A year prior, former Rutland 12th grade student Melanie Hubbard created a school club called Cyber You as part of her action piece in a senior year Capstone project. Cyber You’s purpose was to educate peers about the negative consequences of some behaviors on social media. The club lived beyond Melanie’s graduation. As a way to generate attention outside of the building about the effects of this app, the club developed a petition on Change.org, asking for public support in requesting Apple’s App Store to remove the After School App from its offerings.

The approach caught fire. Now the students were able to use social media in a positive manner, with the same speed and reach of the tool that had affected them negatively just a few days before. The Cyber You club manned laptops at the cafeteria, offering students the chance to add their voice. The petition was spread through Twitter and Facebook. Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, and Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, signed on. Then the Associated Press ran a story on the events, one that ran all over the U.S, and was even picked up in Australia. That brought needed exposure to the petition. Within just a couple of days, word came from Apple that they were dropping the After School App from their App Store.

It is doubtful that this app or others like it will go away completely. And given human nature, the mean words that people say to one another will emerge from time to time, even from the best of us. But students in Vermont learned that they could influence how corporations respond to the customers they serve. Much more important, these students realized that even though they were part of the original problem, when challenged to take a stand in support of their peers, they rose to the occasion, teaching the adult community how to lead.

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