Instagram Memes Deemed Cyber Bullying

Several Campolindo juniors have recently been suspended from school due to social media activity discovered by the school administration. The Instagram account for which they were disciplined, @horny_memes_for_campo_teens, originated early 2nd semester and was followed by over 120 users, most of whom were Campolindo students.

Student and faculty sources have confirmed the specific incident, the nature of the content and the attendant disciplinary action taken against the student perpetrators.  La Puma has also obtained screen shots of content from the Instagram account.

At this point, the incident is common knowledge with most students and teachers aware of the details. History teacher Paul Verbanszky said he overheard students openly discussing the incident in his class.

The Campolindo administration, however, declined to confirm details about any specific cyberbullying incident. Principal John Walker said that the administration has “to protect the confidentiality of staff and students. Students, because they’re minors. There are very strict confidentiality rules. And staff, because there’s personnel, policy, procedure, and even law about the workplace that I need to protect.”

The perpetrators were suspended for various lengths of time depending on the severity of their involvement.  Some also had their schedules rearranged so as to be removed from the classrooms of teachers targeted by the Instagram posts.

“I watched those students leave my classes,” confirmed junior Claire Sebree.

Acalanes Unified High School District (AUHSD) policy allows for the issuing of student suspension for any of the following infractions: Defiance of authority, habitual profanity and vulgarity, bullying and cyberbullying directed towards a pupil or school personnel (including sexual harassment, acts of hate violence, intimidation or creating a hostile educational environment).

The Instagram account featured memes —a form of humor that uses photos or videos with text— negatively targeting both students and faculty. According to a student source who had followed the account on Instagram, the account had more than 25 posts.

While some of the page’s memes were innocent, some targeted specific members of the campus community, including at least 8 teachers and numerous members of the junior class. Some of the memes were racist, sexist, homophobic, and lewd; most were malicious in nature.

At least one meme featured a reference to sexting. Another associated Hitler with a student image.  Other memes rated physical attractiveness of teachers. Multiple memes suggested the implementation of racist policies and one stated “Make Campo White Again.” Other content included fabricated LoopMail message subject lines suggesting sexual behavior between a student and teachers.

The nature of the account’s content is similar to that of meme pages like “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” a Facebook page unaffiliated with that university. The Harvard account gained media coverage in the summer of 2017 for sexually explicit and racist content that, according to The Harvard Crimson, resulted in the college rescinding the acceptances of 10 prospective freshmen. 

While the Campolindo administration would not comment of the specifics of the recent incident, Walker did concede that campus authorities are currently “reevaluating the effectiveness of how we respond to student actions.”

Walker also confirmed that staff have recently discussed the issue of cyberbullying. “Instructional counsel at Campolindo met yesterday [February 12] to discuss, potentially, some new [counteractive] programs,” he said, adding that current measures include a cyberbullying lesson in freshman academy, a unit on bullying in the new sophomore class, and numerous Parent Education meetings addressing safe teenage use of social media.

Walker, confirming recent reevaluation of current programs, said administration is asking themselves such questions as “Are these effective?,” “Are we reaching all of the different students?” and “Are there new programs out there that we might want to look at?”

Walker acknowledged, without specifically citing the recent incident, that in “fostering a high school with a strong sense of community and respect,” discipline is only one tool that alone is not “sufficient.”

“I’m kind of frustrated just because the administration took such drastic action on this but I personally, and people in my friend group have been to the administration about bullying or things like this before—weird Instagram accounts and things like that—and they just didn’t do anything, or were intrigued for a couple days and then never followed up,” said junior Claire Sebree, adding that the administration’s quick and severe response to the recent incident “makes it seem that just because it’s teachers [who are featured]” the incident is “almost more important” to school authorities than incidents that impact only students. 

The recent incident has also raised the issue of what constitutes an appropriate response to bullying. “What response?” asked senior James Lyon. According to Lyon, behavior like the posting of derogatory memes “happens all the time.”

Lyon also said that the administration should be more explicit in addressing the incident if it wants to make a difference. “Covering up things that have already happened isn’t going to prevent [future] things from happening,” he said.  

Sebree said that “A lot of people had heard that it was just a bunch of jokes . . . but it was [really] pretty intense stuff.”

There is also the issue of atonement. According to a faculty source, of the more than 8 perpetrators, only one has offered an apology to a targeted teacher. The source explained that the apology was sent via email and that the student did not address the victim face-to-face. The source also confirms that families of some of the perpetrators filed complaints with the administration about the changes to their student’s schedules.

I think that they [the perpetrators] are seen as—martyr is not the right word, but—they’re kind of—people, like, empathize with them,” said Sebree.

Sebree explained that such sympathy is probably due to the fact that “Some of them [the culpable students] were just doing it to be funny or because they thought it’d be only seen by their friends . . . and that it wouldn’t hurt those people [the victims].”

“I would be equally at fault” if my private jokes were made public, said Lyon, explaining that anyone on campus who has “ever made a joke targeting another person” can easily “empathize” with the culpable students.

Some student opinion over the actions of these perpetrators echoes that “it’s your social media profile and you should be allowed to say what you want on it. That kind of stuff [has been said],” said senior Craig Amador. “[Some do] think that the school is overstepping.”

Verbanszky was careful to note that freedom of speech does not allow individuals to say anything they want whenever they want. “When that freedom of speech infringes on other people’s rights and freedoms and abilities to function in society [like in the page’s infringement on the abilities of students and teachers to function on campus], then that needs to be checked,” he said.

Such censorship of speech is, according to Walker, not only a goal but a disciplinary reality on the campus. “If what you have done online, even if it’s done after school, or on the weekend, on a private account or on a private server—if there’s an impact at school for that student, then the school has the authority to investigate and potentially assign discipline,” he said.

“So where’s that line between my First-Amendment rights and speech that can be potentially the cause of discipline?” asked Walker. “I would say that it becomes very clear when your speech is hurting another student or staff member.”

Walker explained that the severity of disciplinary response to such incidents depends on the incident’s nature and the scope of its influence over the campus community. “Cyberbullying [discipline] could range from detention . . . up to removal from the school and police action,” he said, stating that administration’s “disciplinary matrix” determines action “depending on what the [cyber] content was.”

“I could only surmise that it [the district policy] is ‘Don’t do it,'” said Lyon, who admitted to having no knowledge of the matrix Walker referenced.

Verbanszky said his classes also discussed “the emotional aspects” of how digital harassment and hate speech affect the environment of the campus. “I told them [the students] that it was inappropriate to say that it [the account] was just a joke,” he said.

Verbanszky added that he also asked students to consider the human impact of their actions. “There were human beings that were hurt,” he said, explaining that the perpetrators should “really self-reflect” about “why it [their speech] was hurtful, why it was hateful, and why it was hate speech.”

“It’s good for people to know that [staff members are upset],” agreed English teacher Matt Ridenour. “For the people hurt it wasn’t a joke. . . . [That’s] something important for them [the perpetrators] to see.”

Ridenour highlighted a literary text as a source of guidance for the culpable students: “It just brings me back to my favorite teachable moment, which is in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus tells Scout to climb into somebody else’s skin,” he said.

Sebree agreed that people must learn to be “tolerant, intelligent individuals.”

While stating that a key part of the incident’s harm is the broad-reaching impact enabled by its public, digital platform, one faculty member conceded that “We all said things about our teachers [in high school],” although such comments were contained to small conversations or passed notes.

The administration also recognizes that the consequences of cyberbullying can serve as a learning opportunity for all. “We have great students here at Campo. And sometimes they make mistakes. Our job as educators is to help them work through those mistakes and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And we’ve gotta use a variety of tools for that. Progressive discipline might be one tool. Education, empathy would be other things we would want to foster,” said Walker.

I think we’re always—and need to always—be reevaluating our approaches to student discipline and education,” added Walker. 

“[The account was] something that was very low,” said Verbanszky. “And our community is better than that.”