School faced dilemma over pupil expulsions


ANALYSIS:The hope among teachers is that the case will focus the minds of teenagers when it comes to cyberbullying

DID THE board of management at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, overreact by moving to expel four students who posted abusive comments about their teachers on Facebook? Or did it respond with a penalty that was entirely appropriate in the circumstances?

There were mixed views about the issue across the education sector yesterday; what’s clear is that the school board faced an awkward dilemma when it convened earlier this week.

Had it failed to act, the school authorities could have been criticised for undermining their own teaching force, three of whom were subjected to “vile and baseless” sexual allegations online.

Moving to expel the four was also a difficult option; it was certain to draw criticism that the school was being too severe on a group of 17-year-olds who might not have appreciated the gravity of their own actions.

In the end, it decided to impose the same punishment on all four – even though one student actually created the page while the three others administered it.

The Oatlands incident came to light after pupils attended a school musical, Hairspray, over the St Patrick’s weekend.

The special Facebook page made abusive remarks of a sexual nature against both a male and female teacher. Abusive comments about the working hours of another teacher were also posted.

Once online, the material appears to have spread like a bush fire among pupils. More than 40 pupils tagged the material as a favourite during one 48-hour period – this group was given a period of detention by the school last month.

All of the three young teachers subjected to the abuse are said to have been “hugely upset” and “distraught”.

The offending material was taken down within 24 hours after a teacher at the school alerted the principal, Keith Ryan.

In some quarters, the punishment was criticised for its severity. The argument is made that the behaviour of the four in Oatlands is no more than an updated version of scrawling offensive remarks on school desks or the back of toilet doors.

They say the four students regarded their Facebook page as a private domain and never realised their offensive comments would reach a wider audience.

But the tough action taken by the school was broadly welcomed by most teachers yesterday.

One tweeted; “It’s unacceptable to publicly humiliate teachers, colleagues or classmates on a social network.”

The hope among teachers is that the Oatlands case will focus the minds of other teenagers and help them to appreciate the trauma involved when offensive remarks are posted.

For the Department of Education, the incident points to the urgent need to revise and update its guidelines on bullying, which date back to the mid-1990s.

Schools also need more help in their efforts to educate teachers in the dangers of Facebook and other social networking sites.

At present, bullying forms just one element of an overcrowded social and personal education programme in the first three years of second level.

Little attention is paid to the issue during the two-year Leaving Cert cycle.

The good news is that the new forum established by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn should deliver updated rules and regulations.

But what will it take to make teenagers realise those remarks on Facebook have the capacity to traumatise and wound teachers or their fellow pupils?


TEENAGERS NEED to realise that offensive remarks posted online can continue to hurt teachers or fellow pupils long after they close down their computer, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said yesterday.

The Minister refused to comment on the decision by Oatlands College in Dublin to expel four students after they posted abusive remarks of a “vile sexual nature” about their teachers on Facebook. But he said the publicity the case attracted underlined the growing problem of bullying on social networking sites.

Mr Quinn said students often posted offensive material in a moment of “exuberance”. But the impact of these comments was still being felt by the victims of this cyberbullying long after the Facebook page was closed down.

In the Oatlands case, an appeal by parents of the four students in question is likely to be heard next month. Should this prove unsuccessful, the fifth-year students will have to find a new school for September – as they enter their Leaving Cert year.

The parents will argue their sons failed to appreciate the gravity of their actions.