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posted: 4/10/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: School using controversy as a teaching moment

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Little good can ever be expected to come of a sexting scandal at a middle school. But if one occurs, it requires delicate handling -- as officials at Barrington Middle School-Station Campus are demonstrating this week.

The middle school and Barrington Unit District 220 acted quickly to get information and control, after a parent reported overhearing students talking about an inappropriate picture of a student that was being passed around via text. Officials contacted police and were quickly able to identify all kids involved and contain the immediate problem to a small group.

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That, in and of itself, was good fortune born of sound thinking, but it's the next steps that were perhaps most critical in managing the tone and gravity of the situation. School officials appear to have regarded the incident not just within their responsibility to maintain discipline and decorum at the school but within their mission as a place of learning.

That middle school students should not be sharing explicit photographs through their cellphones no one disputes. But every adult also knows that mature judgment is not the hallmark of adolescence, particularly the just-emerging adolescence of junior high school students. So, an incident of this type demands both correction and nurture.

That recognition is obvious in the comments of District 220's chief communications officer, Jeff Arnett, whose reflections with Daily Herald staff writer Melissa Silverberg repeatedly emphasized both the lessons young people must learn about privacy and appropriate use of their cellphones and the trauma a situation like this can induce.

"Right now," Arnett said, "the focus is on making sure they get all the support they need."

Support comes in many forms. No doubt this topic has been, is and will be a subject of discussion and gossip at the school. Hopefully, educators' stress on the former will minimize the latter and direct all students, not just those immediately involved, to a greater awareness of what's appropriate behavior involving their own bodies, what's appropriate behavior involving their cellphones and what's appropriate behavior when something inappropriate becomes a source of controversy.

"Hopefully, this will elevate the dialogue," Arnett said of the school's response, and while it may seem counterintuitive to ever consider dialogue about sexting as elevated, that indeed must be the goal of school officials at a time like this.

The overriding term for the situation at Barrington Middle School-Station Campus may be "embarrassment," but school officials clearly recognize that it is not just they who are embarrassed. It is also students, parents and the school community. Their management of all that discomfort is reminding students of how important their personal privacy is and how fragile it can be.

And it's showing them the strengths of focus and of judgment that must be called into service to build something useful from an unfortunate circumstance.

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