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Blizzard of Nasty Tweets Prompts Call for Cyber Civility

“Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood.”

-British environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy

It began with the threat of a December snowstorm.

Then the student tweets started falling, some crude, some threatening. “Just remember if anyone slips and falls, you could have a lawsuit on your hands.” And, “Cancel school before I unleash these thugs on ya.” And, “People go to hell for things like this.”

Montgomery County (MD) Superintendent of Schools Josh Starr recalls he was simply trying to figure out whether to declare a snow day, a late opening, or business as usual.

The weather passed, but Starr was bothered by the tweets and wrote an open letter to parents asking if they knew what their kids were up to online. Some of the messages, he said, “were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework.”

But many were “offensive and disturbing,” he said. “Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words.”

Starr said the incident prompted some self-reflection on his role as a dad and as the superintendent for 151,000 schoolchildren, “and what our role is in ensuring that our children are using technology appropriately.”

It was, he said, “more than a challenge at the office.” With his letter, Starr kicked off a conversation about how kids can use technology “in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive.” That includes cautions about cyber bullying.

The discussion led to the formation of a “Cybercivility Task Force.” Starr invited parents, students, staff and community members to apply. Plenty did. The task force will meet monthly from March until August and work on strategies “to raise awareness of the need for cyber civility in how MCPS students and adults communicate online.”

In the meantime, Starr urged parents to “set limits” and talk to their kids about the appropriate use of social media and mobile technology. “And make sure you are monitoring what they post online.”

It’s good advice, and the task force is a great idea. As an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., I frequently remind students that every email they send, every photo they post, and every 140-character message they tweet can help – or hurt – their personal brand. Prospective employers down the road will make decisions based in part on their online presence.

Good habits start early, and Starr is right to force the issue. Technology often moves faster than anyone can make rules, a dynamic that kids have leveraged in the name of having fun and staying in touch. No one wants to shut down communication, but it’s time to ratchet up awareness of what’s going on online, and the impact it can have on relationships, college plans, job prospects and plenty more.


Starr on the news:

Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools:


American Academy of Pediatrics:


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:


Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent.


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