School Suspends 10 Students For Commenting On Image That Appears To Show Principal Choking Student

from the got-that-backwards dept

Way back in 2005, we wrote a story about a ridiculous situation in which a group of students were suspended after filming an angry teacher go on a bit of a tirade, screaming at students and yanking the chair out from under one of them. Rather than discipline the teacher, the school suspended the students. This was way back before it was that common for everyone to have phones with cameras in them (back when people still called them “cameraphones” and mocked them) and before social media made it so easy to widely distribute such images and videos. You’d think, given nearly a decade of time to get used to the concept that we wouldn’t see a similar story pop up… but that’s not the case apparently. 10 students in California have been suspended from their high school for posting, sharing or commenting on an image that appears to be their principal putting a student into a choke hold:

There is some dispute about what’s happening in the photo. The principal, Todd Whitmire, claims that the girl was involved in a fight, and he had separated her from others, “and she began struggling and I was pushing her away to get her away from the area and she fell down.” The girl, Ashley Johnson, a 9th-grader at the school, disputes this, is wearing a neck brace and claims that Whitemore injured her neck. Either version of the events may be plausible, but no matter what the truth is, it’s ridiculous to suspend students for posting, sharing or commenting on the photo. Yet that’s what the school did. Whitmire claims that the original posting of the image wasn’t the problem, but “keeping it alive” or making “negative comments” somehow constitutes “cyberbullying.”

Principal Todd Whitmire said it wasn’t the posting of the photo that got the suspended students in trouble but rather the comments that were added to the photo, which he said amounts to cyberbullying through a social network. The two students who fought were also suspended earlier this week for their actions as called for under the state education code.

“It was the reposting, the retweeting, and keeping it alive and assigning negative comments to it and creating a hostile environment” for the girl, he said Wednesday of the posts that followed Friday’s on-campus fight.

This is shameful. It seems abundantly clear that the school is trying to stifle free expression and free speech — and they flat out admit that fact, but hide behind the claim that it’s “cyberbullying.” Cyberbullying of who? The principal? Really? If you’re going to be an administrator in a public high school, you need to have a slightly thicker skin than to suspend students for saying some mean things about a photo of you.

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Comments on “School Suspends 10 Students For Commenting On Image That Appears To Show Principal Choking Student”

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Sneeje (profile) says:

What I struggle with, however...

I agree with everything you’ve said, Mike. What I struggle with, however is how to characterize why we’re at this point.

I firmly believe this is a problem of our own cultural making. Teachers/administrators (or government employees, or police officers, or…) that make mistakes are not met with reasonable understanding that ?things happen?, but an overwhelming wave of blame that usually results in someone getting fired. Yes, I realize that there are things that cannot fall into the “things happen” category, but we need to figure out how to separate them.

If this principal knew after he was overzealous in his use of force that he could acknowledge he made a mistake, the school would stand behind him and pay for reasonable medical expenses, he would have to learn from his mistake, and everyone could move on, I bet this kind of reaction would not occur. But more likely what happens is, lawsuits happen, the school disavows him and claims it was a rogue employee. This is a situation in which which people will abandon all kinds of ethical behavior to avoid.

If you (I certainly do) long for different behavior from these establishments, we need to ask whether in today?s culture, we are willing to allow mistakes and rehabilitation rather than punishment through firings and the legal system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What I struggle with, however...

Yes. I agree 100%. However, in order to handle a situation like this properly, we need an example of an administrator that handles this properly and realizes he has made a mistake, admits to it, and tries to make the best of it. Instead we get an administrator that doubles down on the mistake making the situation worse.

blaktron (profile) says:

Re: Re: What I struggle with, however...

The point being made however, is that the administrator is left in a position of the cheating husband, deny ’til you die because admission and getting caught carry the same penalties. Until we start rewarding folks, as a society, for coming clean they will continue to lie lie lie.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What I struggle with, however...

And now what we will get is an even nastier battle in the legal system as the students who are now unjustly being denied their 1st amendment rights as well as there right to access to the public educational system will be able surely join the legal fight with lawyers who will try to turn this into a payday for themselves and their clients. It seems that by trying to avoid legal entanglement these administrators are simply making their worst nightmares come true and making them even worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

I will agree even though the photo looks bad, there is no reason to censor it. Although for me personally it seems he is trying to restraint the kid, but I can’t tell with how much force or if the kid is a big kid or a skinny one, but being nine it can’t be that big.

Maybe he should put some cameras to show what goes on there.

Or make a policy of not engaging in those matters without somebody filming the whole event so there should be no doubts about what happened and everyone can judge if he was correct or not.

There are both bad people in power and under them.
This is why I will hold judgement on the photo there.

btr1701 (profile) says:


> Either version of the events may be plausible

Actually, I’m gonna go with the principal being the more credible one here. If you read the linked article, it mentions that the girl who was “choked” was lying in a neck brace, supposedly unable to move, when the media showed up to talk to her, but that a school resource officer recorded her moving around freely and without pain when there were no reporters around to play to.

Sounds like a girl who is dishonestly milking the incident for sympathy (after probably being coached to do so by the adults in her life). Not exactly someone who’s word I’m going to take over that of the principal.

That said, these school officials need to get it through his heads once and for all that they don’t have jurisdiction over the whole world, and that includes social media web sites.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Credibility

Yeah, which makes my point above all the more apt. If you anticipate outcomes that far, far exceed the weight of your mistake, you’re going to hide from it (foolishly given the ability for information distribution).

Or worse, we’ll start getting outcomes where administrators won’t step in to break up fights because they can’t win–any actions on their part can be used against them.

I coach soccer in our community and we get advised repeatedly: don’t touch the kids, ever. If they are injured, call 911 or let a parent help them. And, god forbid, don’t give them a high-five or a “good job” slap on the shoulder. This really makes me sick–it should not be this way.

Haldr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Credibility

I’d have to agree with both of you. Given the reported sighting of her moving around comfortably by a different school official I’d say it’s likely that the injuries were being played up. The picture looks to me like it could easily fit the principle’s side of the story. Her expression looks to me less like a gasp, as the story’s caption says, and more like someone in the midst of an angry rant.

Aside from that, though, we would need to see the comments that were being made on the photo. I thought Mike’s question as to who was being bullied was slightly odd as well since the quote from the article specifically states that it was the girl who they felt was being bullied. If you read the article, there’s also a quote that says:

Just after he allegedly pushed back 15-year-old Ashley Johnson to separate her, the photo was snapped by a cellphone and uploaded to Facebook, where Whitmire says racist and derogatory comments followed.

If the comments on the photo really were racist and derogatory toward the girl, they would almost certainly qualify as “cyberbullying”. Whether or not students should be free to say these things on a social network outside of school and be punished for it in school is another question entirely but I think it’s fairly clear who the bullying was supposedly directed toward. Without seeing the comments themselves, it’s difficult to say for sure if they really were trying to protect the student from bullying or the principle from embarrassment but I don’t think there was any clear-cut censorship given the information provided.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Credibility

If the comments on the photo really were
> racist and derogatory toward the girl, they
> would almost certainly qualify as “cyberbullying”.

You’re assuming that if there were racist comments made, then they were made about the girl. The racist comments could just as easily have been directed toward the principal. We don’t know. The quote from the article doesn’t provide any clarification. Typical sloppy job by the media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just some thoughts.

So, speaking as someone who occasionally has to restrain psychiatric patients, both in the job I currently have and the one before it, I’ve had many hours of training in how to do a non-harmful take down (16 hours at the first job, 8 hours at this one). It’s not as easy as you might think. (Oddly, most of the techniques are the same ones you use as a rescue swimmer [60 hours].). And speaking as the child of a teacher, I can say that at least when and where she was teaching, they get no training in it.

It looks to me from that picture as though his story is broadly accurate, when you’re dealing with an emergent situation, the tendency is to grab as close to arm level as possible, which, with someone who is as much shorter as a 9th grader is than an adult, would be about neck level. If you look at the picture, it looks like his arms are about 2/3s of the way up his lower leg, so call it no more than about a foot off the ground, which is much lower than you’d want for a good chokehold, you’d have no leverage (no professional knowledge here, but I did have an older brother.). It looks like he had her by the neck and was pulling her backwards, she tripped and he went down with her to guide the fall. He shouldn’t have grabbed for the neck in the first place but I doubt very much that he was trying to choke her out.

All of that being said, without reading the comments in question, because I don’t care enough to look, it sounds like he’s trying to justify the suspensions by saying they’re cyberbullying the girl, not him (“‘…creating a hostile environment’ for the girl.”). I don’t know if that’s true or not, I could certainly imagine some of the comments being along the lines of “Look at this dumb ho-bag get what she deserves, choked out by the principal.”, I can’t imagine though that some of them weren’t “Fuckin’ principal choked out this poor defenseless girl.”. My gut reaction is to say that the 10 comments in question were a mix of the two, and the suspensions came because the principal was butt-hurt, but justifying it by the ones about the girl, however it could be none of them were about the girl, or all of them were.

As to the whole suspensions for cyberbullying thing, I’m somewhat conflicted. On one hand, I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance programs (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” -Emerson), not to mention all of the first amendment issues. On the other hand, though, it is easy for those of us well out of high school to forget how vicious the politics can be. We look back on it and we know that ultimately, it was trivial stuff, both in terms of how vicious it actually was, and in terms of any real consequences, but teenagers lack that perspective, if football quarterback Tommy calls you a douchenozzle, it feels like the end of the world. If you discount the “ZOMG, the victim will commit suicide” aspect that the media loves to report, you have the much more pervasive aspect that children who feel they are under attack do a poor job of learning. Taking it as a given that schools have the duty to do everything they can to help the children learn, you can start to see why they are attempting to squash that stuff.

Well, that wound up being longer than I expected when I started.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

“He shouldn’t have grabbed for the neck in the first place but I doubt very much that he was trying to choke her out.”

My first thought when I saw that picture was “He grabbed her in the one place that wouldn’t throw him on the sexual offenders list for life.” Imagine if he had grabbed her around the waist and then she fell before the picture was taken. Think about where his arms would be and the hell that would have brought down.

Brazenly anonymous says:

Re: Re:

Judging by Haldor’s comment about techniques being the same as that used by rescue swimmers/lifeguards, the correct method would have been to come in under the armpits, locking the arms in a useless position, providing leverage and preventing the girl from falling at all. This can’t really be interpreted as a sexual position.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Socialist's


There, I fixed it for you.

While we’re on the subject, why is education being conflated with Socialism here? Surely you don’t think education is a bad thing, do you?

Then again, it’s easier to control the ignorant. Is that what you’re aiming for?

An authoritarian is an authoritarian, whatever flavor they come in and I despise them all.

As for the “New Socialist Police State,” the word you’re looking for is “Fascist,” which is a right-wing thing. The people behind it are using buzz-words like “Socialist” to scare you into going along with it, and, lacking education enough to know what either “Socialist” or “Fascist” mean, you’re going along with it.

You’ve done a great job of educating yourself, Corwin155. /s

anonymouse says:

No Techdirt

Seriously i think we can all see where this is going, the teacher restrained a student that was fighting with another, the kids take a photo and put it up on the internet making the teacher look bad and comemtnign about hwo the school allows this to happen and the teacher is bullied into leaving the school, where he has proabbly been workign for ages, damn he might even give up teaching completely.

In my mind this is the kids using carefully taken photos to attack the teacher, making him look like the bad one.

Should they have suspended all the kids, maybe not, but if they had been warned about making false allegations and went ahead and did it then they should be punished, and the powers the school has for punishing children have been taken away so that the only way to punish is to suspend.

I dont support teachers using violence in classrooms but if the kids are violent the teacher must do something to stop it.
Maybe the teachers need to have hidden cams so they can show what kids do in the classrooms then not only get them suspended but expelled and never allowed to set foot on the school property again.
The problem with having cameras in the classroom is that there are entities out there that cry it is spying on them and hurts them, well i think it is hurting the teachers and other kids that want to learn and the people not allowing or wanting cameras in classrooms need to be put in the classrooms of the worst offenders and sort out any problems when they arise.

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