Rhode Island’s no-Facebook-in-school ban is redundant and confusing

Rhode Island’s legislature is poised to put the state atop a list that none should aspire to lead: Most backward in incorporating technology into teaching.

In a well-motivated quest to respond to uncivil bullying speech, the Senate gave final passage Thursday to an anti-bullying measure that includes a blanket prohibition on the use of social networking sites on school grounds during school hours.

Unless vetoed by Gov. Lincoln D. Chaffee — unlikely, given the bill’s overwhelming legislative support — the measure, House Bill 5941, would put Rhode Island alone among states in legislatively handcuffing teachers from using the technology proven most effective in reaching students.

For starters, the prohibition is redundant. Most schools already block social-networking sites on their own servers and prohibit students from surfing the web on handheld devices during school. There is no evidence that schools are hesitant, or lacking in authority, to outlaw on-campus Facebooking on their own.

The ban is, moreover, an invitation to confusion and to “false positive” punishment. What exactly is a “social networking site” that is illegal to view? Would posting a resume to LinkedIn qualify? How about using the discussion boards on websites that help kids with abusive families – sites that many kids access at school because they can’t at home? The bill contains no definition – nor can it, since online technology evolves far too quickly for legislative drafters to keep up.

Leave it to the sound judgment of school disciplinarians to define “social networking site” on a case-by-case basis, you say? What judgment? Have you slept through the last 25 years of “zero-tolerance” disciplinary overkill? Given ill-defined punitive authority, we can be sure that a substantial number of schools will apply it in nonsensically literal ways to criminalize innocent behavior.

More to the point, the law is – as teens themselves would say, if we’d take time to listen to them – “like, so two-years-ago.”

Schools that erected walls between students and the Web are starting to tear down the barricades, realizing – just as Jim Henson and “Sesame Street” did with television – that technology kids love to use can be harnessed for good. In tech-savvy schools, Twitter is becoming a favorite means for teachers who advise clubs to blast a message – “Pizza in the yearbook room at 12” – to most effectively reach a targeted audience.

While the bill lets administrators opt out of the ban, liability-averse schools – and every school is a liability-averse school – invariably will follow the crowd, believing that any deviation from state standards will expose them to litigation if a parent traces a child’s injury to an online message posted during school.

Finally, a no-Facebook-on-campus law is a superficial and ill-tailored response to the underlying bullying problem that it purports to address. It fosters the mentality that the social-networking sites are themselves the evil, creating the illusion of a solution while ignoring the deeper cause.

Cruelty, hate speech and social exclusion did not enter schools with the Internet, nor were any of these behaviors invented by children. “Teaching by punishing” may be an emotionally satisfying response, and it is certainly the simplest one, but there is no real reason to believe it is effective.

Students do not act hatefully toward each other because of lack of punishment – they act hatefully toward each other because they’ve seen adults do it. We can ban Facebook in schools and congratulate ourselves on having “fixed the problem” – until someone invents a new technology that makes a joke of the law (give that 90 days, tops). Or we can look in the mirror and start fixing it for real.