Northfield Middle School Principal Jeff Pesta is no stranger to dealing with student drama, and occasionally, it’s related to interactions online.
Last week, for example, a student’s parent told him that the child was receiving harassing messages from another student. Because the exchanges happened on the Internet, the parent had a record of everything.
Pesta confronted the harasser with the printed-out messages in hand, which sped up the conversation because the student couldn’t deny writing them. “It’s a fast forward to, ‘OK, let’s start dealing with it now,’ ” he said. “That is a big eye-opener [for them].”
Whether on their cellphone or iPads, students middle school-aged and younger are entering the uncertain world of Internet communication, a place where a suggestive tweet can lead to suspension — as it did last month in Rogers — and an inappropriate photo can re-emerge years later in a Google search. Some students don’t fully grasp the permanence of their online activity, or the fact that it has consequences, Pesta said.
It’s a concern that a group of Northfield High School students are tackling head-on through the Mindfulness Campaign, designed to help middle school students think twice about how they act online.
As part of the Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC), a civic group for teens, the students visited the middle school last month to talk about topics including cyberbullying, digital footprints and ultimately “using technology safely and wisely,” said Jenna Scheffert, a junior and MYC member. “It’s an issue that affects all of us,” she said.
The group created a video that was shown during middle school students’ announcements. They also made posters featuring funny memes, advising students to pay attention in class rather than playing iPad games, or to be thoughtful about their online postings.
The idea for the campaign came this summer when sixth- through 12th-graders were preparing to get district-issued iPads for the first time, Scheffert said.
The high schoolers were concerned about appropriate iPad use, and staff members shared their concern. From there, about 10 students came up with the idea of “Mindfulness,” or “being aware of how your actions affect others and yourself,” said Annika Peterson, a junior.
The campaign is focused on the positive, getting the younger kids to share experiences and emphasizing what they should do online, rather than what they shouldn’t do, Scheffert said.
The project is also a way for high school students to connect with middle schoolers, Peterson said. “We really value just talking to the younger students,” she said.
On administrators’ radar
Marnie Thompson, assistant principal at the high school and a MYC adviser, said she sometimes deals with online incidents that require conflict mediation, though they don’t all rise to the level of cyberbullying. “It’s something we continually have on our radar,” she said.
Pesta said that since students at the middle school received iPads, the school has relaxed its rules about using technology in schools, including cellphones. “Relaxing the rules has actually brought about more responsible behavior,” he said, adding that he’s seen fewer issues related to Internet behavior this year than in the past.
Pesta said that for four years now, the school has brought in a cybersafety expert to talk to sixth-graders about how “your digital fingerprint is there forever and you have to exercise caution in what you put out and decisions that you make.”
Similarly, all students at Henry Sibley High School in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district watched a video this fall about managing their digital footprints and creating a positive image on the Internet. Officers from the Mendota Heights Police Department also were on hand to talk about the legal ramifications of certain online activities.
‘Super-effective role models’
Pesta said the older students’ visit to the middle school during lunch was a success. “They’re just super-effective role models for the students because they connect more with people of that age than anyone else.”
Peterson believes the middle schoolers grasped the topics discussed, including how social media posts can hurt others as much as words said face-to-face.
“I was just really surprised at how insightful [the middle school students] were,” she said.
Between the Mindfulness Campaign, visits from the cyber expert and repeated reminders from staff, middle school students seem to be getting it, he said.
“They are catching on to [the fact that] it’s a different world,” he said. “They are making an adjustment.”