Social Media for Social Good: VMware Alumni

You know, feel-good moments don’t come along too often, but based on what I’ve seen over the last few days, I think the human race is going to turn out OK after all.

As some of you know, I was a very early employee at VMware, and founded their first set of online discussion forums. I was somewhere around the 100th employee of what became a multi-billion dollar business, and my time there was extremely fun and rewarding. I found my passion for Social Business there, so I have VMware to thank for that. I left the company in 2007, and shortly thereafter joined a mailing list and group on LinkedIn called the VMware Alumni group. Over the years, this group has had varying levels of activity, often flaring up at the oddest times for the strangest reasons.

Day before yesterday, the official news came out that VMware was going to have some layoffs.  An email started circulating in the VMware Alumni group about the layoff announcement. What has transpired since that initial email has been nothing short of amazing.

The discussions that flared up were in three basic categories:

  1. I remember my time at VMware, and it was a lot of fun.  I’m so glad I can reminisce with former employees on this mailing list.
  2. I was caught up in a layoff at <insert company here> and it was a bummer
  3. Hey, my company is hiring, if you just got laid off and are joining the Alumni group, come work for my company!

It was that third one that amazed me the most.  The outpouring of “I’m so sorry for those that are losing their jobs, let’s help them find new ones” was really amazing.

The postings about jobs became so prolific that the group owner actually created and posted a spreadsheet for all of the job postings.  He also made it so that anyone could edit the spreadsheet and re-post it.

To my fellow VMware alumni who have recently joined, welcome aboard.  To those who have been in the Alumni group for a while, I hope you share a similar good feeling about how heroic this list became as quickly as it did.

And for those VMware old-timers who are part of the Alumni group, I have one message for you:  The intersection is flooded.

Dept of Ed Tells Schools They Must Be Cyber-Cops Patrolling for Cyberbullying Among Students

cyberbullying patrol

Image by eschipul via Flickr

On 26 Oct 2010, a “Dear Colleague” letter was sent from the US Dept of Education to all school administrators across the country. In the letter, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali, made statements which appear to redefine the definition of legal harassment as well as the legal standard for when school officials can be held accountable for preventing it among their students.

“Harassment may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet;… Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed as a specfic target, or involve repeated incidents. … [it occurs] when the conduct is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent…,” Ali writes. And further: ”A school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.”

What’s new here? A lot:

  • First, that schools can be held accountable for cyberbully behavior which takes place off school grounds. Previously, schools were only accountable for acts of bullying which occur on school campuses.
  • Second, that schools can be held accountable not only when they have actual knowledge of cyberbully, bully, or harassment behaviors, but also when they reasonably should have known.
  • Third, that harassment is redefined to include acts which are “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent.” Previously, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1999, that acts must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.”
  • Fourth, harassment – and by implication bullying and cyberbullying – “does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents.”

The letter urges schools to consider bullying and cyberbullying incidents as acts of harassment, in particular when they involve race, color, national origin, sex, or disability. In short, policies which apply to bullying and cyberbullying incidents are not sufficient in these cases - and local school officials have little or no discretion in terms of their response, as viewed by the Dept of Ed.

Response from the National School Board Association

In a written response to this letter, the General Counsel of the National School Board Association has asked the Dept of Ed to clarify its “Dear Colleague” letter.

“Our fear is that, absent clarification, the department’s expansive reading of the law … will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial school climates that distract schools from their educational missions,” NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negron Jr. wrote.

To date, clarification from this letter written in early Dec 2010, has not been provided.

Where Does This Lead? Already Over-Burdened Schools Make Poor Cyber-Cops

This broad reading of Civil Rights laws appears to require schools to perform as cyber-cops among their students. Schools can be sued when they should have known about harassment incidents – which can include negative statements not directed at specific individuals, including statements which were not intended to harm.

This standard appears to be too broad to be reasonably enforceable by most school administrators, who themselves are not likely to be as tech-savvy as their students. The letter also brings to the fore, many urgent and challenging questions, including:

  • What is the legal definition of cyberbullying?
  • Is cyberbullying subject to Civil Rights laws governing harassment at all times?
  • How broadly must school policies be written, in terms of the school’s responsibility to prevent cyberbullying?
  • Is a no-tolerance stance practical to enforce?
  • Who pays for the enforcement when it involves cyber-sleuthing and tech automation?
  • How much discretion should be allowed to local administrators?

At least in terms of this last question, the position of the NSBA is clearly in favor of trusting the judgement of local school officials over the courts.

“The professional judgement of educators is key to addressing the problem of bullying,” Negron writes.

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New Cyberbullying Study Reveals that Students Bullying Are More Likely Insecure, Negative Towards Teachers

Teen Cyberbullying

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

In a cyberbullying study of 28 New York area high school students in grades 9 and 10, students were asked to fill out a series of extensive questionnaires. The study was conducted by a research team from St. John’s University and published earlier this month.

Key findings of the study include:

  • Most students use text messaging – 96.4%
  • Most students report only visiting web sites which are parent-approved – 53.6%
  • Most students have a Facebook profile – 89.3%
  • There is a weak correlation between a student having a low GPA and being a victim of cyberbullying, or being a perpetrator of cyberbullying
  • There was a high correlation between a student having low self-esteem and/or a negative attitude towards teachers and a student being a perpetrator of cyberbullying

The study’s authors hope that these findings help inform future studies, as the correlation between low self-esteem and teacher negativity might prove to be useful predictors in cyberbullying among teens.

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