Think playground bullying is a problem? Check out the vitriol on “Parents of…” Facebook pages

Here on the East Coast, we just had three back-to-back school cancellations because of snow. “Oh, happy day!” said no superintendent, ever. Grief has five emotional stages, but parents during snowstorms shuffle through countless stages. The drama that ensues waiting for the answer to “will they or won’t they cancel school?” is something to behold. And no matter what decision is made, undoubtedly, there is a contingent of parents unhappy about it.This has been true since the beginning of the “snow day.”

The difference now? Social media.

If you’re a parent in suburbia (and likely everywhere else), you’re aware of, or are a member of, a “Parents of” Facebook page or two. I’m not talking about the school-sanctioned social media sites that are launched and moderated by school or district staff—those innocuous pages that blast out school closing news, basketball schedules, or fundraiser information. I’m referring to those group pages—often closed until your request to belong is accepted— that act as hyper-local online town squares (or adult playgrounds).

Watch one of those during a snowstorm. Whew. The lampooning of superintendents and the heads of charters who make the decisions can be brutal, with variations of “we’re raising a generation of snowflakes who won’t be able to read” if school is canceled or “you’re risking children’s lives in the name of raising standardized test scores” if it’s not. There’s no right answer.

The stated purpose of these “Parents of” pages is to share constructive information about school and education. However, they often devolve into tools for airing grievances–bullying teachers, students, and other parents–or complaining about everything that is wrong with school A or district B. Those complaints range from anything from bus schedules and inconsiderate parents at drop-off to the principal’s lack of responsiveness. Instead of approaching other adults in private to discuss Ms. A’s tardiness, School B’s excessive homework practices, or Student C’s reason for suspension, sensitive information is oftentimes litigated in the public square, put to the masses to dissect and pass judgment.

If you know the groups I’m talking about, you foremost know that the “closed” groups are seldom actually closed. A group meant for only parents of a specific town or school are often filled with members who used be a part of the community, have a cousin who attends the local school, work in the district, are outsiders interested in school politics, or have more nefarious reasons for wanting to eavesdrop on a “closed” conversation (a closed conversation with hundreds of people).

These groups are often moderated by other parents who don’t have the time or inclination to screen every request or referee conversations at all hours. Even in the most heavily moderated groups, it takes a second for a screenshot to be captured and distributed.

Where private grievances become online trash talk

These Facebook groups create a toxic adult culture that trickles down to kids and reverberates into schools. Parents start expecting administrators, teachers, and school board members to answer their grievances online in a public forum where everyone can participate. These complaints cross the line when they devolve into bullying, character defamation, and breaches of minors’ privacy.

Hurtful words pass between parents. Parents accuse teachers and coaches of favoritism, neglect, or ineptitude. Students are called out for “inappropriate behaviors” or “not inviting everyone to the birthday party” (and come on, you don’t have to say the kid’s name for everyone to know who it is). No one should feel like their school community is unhealthy or be discouraged from contributing to that community for fear of online reprisals.

My husband is getting his M.Ed. These groups were the topic of a recent class. An example discussed was a parent who posted displeasure that a school was teaching world religions, and hence, Islam. You can imagine how that conversation spiraled. At one point, students who had graduated the year before intervened to explain the value of gaining knowledge about all religions and cultures and that the class made them more accepting and understanding, but not before a lot of people were deeply hurt by discriminatory remarks.

These are personal anecdotes from a handful of pages, but I have no doubt this is a universal issue. It’s happening across the pond; according to the Independent, 40 percent of teachers in the UK reported abuse from parents online in the past year. In the U.S., the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, wrote an Opinion Piece in the Chattanoogan on the “numerous instances of cyber bullying by parents.” In Minnesota, two coaches resigned because of online parent bullying, while multiple coaches for an Ohio girls’ basketball team did the same. I expect to see much more of these reports and media stories in the years to come.

I’m confident that most parents have the best of intentions on social media, and the toxicity of these spaces are fueled by a couple dozen bad actors. However, it only takes a few to taint an otherwise positive school culture and for other parents, teachers, staff, and students to feel bullied. In the Minnesota Star-Tribune article cited above, one of the coaches says something that rings true:

“We coach because we love the kids and the game more than we hate the constant criticism. But there is a tipping point for some coaches. Eventually, they decide the criticism isn’t worth the positives that come with coaching.”

Think twice before starting the rogue Facebook page. Think thrice before posting on them. Words matter. Think before you type.

What do you think?
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Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a preschooler, wife to a teacher, and a social justice seeker in Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the Chief Communications Officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the Communications Director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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