A video production teacher at Montville High School in New Jersey had her students create a public service announcement (PSA) as a class assignment. The students decided to make an anti-bullying video and assigned roles for the skit. B.B., a junior with multiple cognitive and social disabilities, was selected to be the victim. Other students then emptied garbage cans on his head, slapped him, and pushed him to the ground. The video concluded with a teacher breaking up the bullying activity and an anti-bullying message.
Sadly, the video was then edited by some students and posted on YouTube. The YouTube version omitted the anti-bullying aspects of the video and only showed B.B. being bullied. The YouTube version was viewed over 3,700 times before it was taken down. B.B. became the subject of taunts and teasing in school, severe enough that he missed school for a month. His mother has now sued the teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board under the state's anti-bullying law for failing to sufficiently protect her son after the teasing began.
This incident raises multiple issues worthy of consideration. In no particular order, here are a few questions and thoughts...
- Where did the original video file reside? Presumably the editing of the PSA was done at school since it was a video production class. What precautions, if any, were taken regarding storage and/or possible dissemination of the PSA? Did each student involved in creating the video get a copy?
- Who owns the original video? The school? The students who made it? Both? What rights does each party have to do with the video what it wishes?
- Was the edited YouTube version of the video created at school? If so, the school's AUP should cover the offending student's behavior. Although the offending student was identified, it is unclear what disciplinary action, if any, was taken against him/her.
- In addition to the state law, presumably the school has an anti-bullying policy. Can a minor student with multiple cognitive and social disabilities legally consent to "fake" bullying? Is there any argument of consent or assumption of risk for this situation?
- One of the necessary elements of a defamation claim is that the victim's reputation was harmed substantially enough to warrant a legal remedy. Is this harder to prove for a minor student than it would be for an adult, particularly given the rampant teasing that occurs in schools?
There are lots of issues here, but these are the ones that initially jump out at me. I think B.B.'s attorney was right when he said that B.B. never should have been selected in the first place to be the bullying victim. That said, any of the students conceivably could have been teased if they were in his place. B.B. just appears to be a particularly sensitive student because of his disabilities.
As teachers and students in schools continue to create more digital content as part of coursework, we will see more stories like this. The portability and modifiability of digital files, combined with the openness of the Internet and the ready availability of content creation tools, make these types of situations difficult to prevent. The challenge for schools will be to balance appropriate safety and supervision concerns with the pedagogical advantages that often accompany the use of digital technologies. Think about the digital content that is created in your school: is your organization at risk for similar inappropriate appropriation of content by a student or staff member?
[thanks to Jim Gates at Tipline for pointing me to this story]