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Last month, students in Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme shared a list via text message rating female students on looks. After an investigation, the school gave one student a day of in-school suspension. The young women had a different response: They organized a class-wide discussion to share personal stories and address the toxic culture that led to the creation and dispersal of the list.
In the digital age, how are high schools students navigating their relationships to one another? And what role should schools play in teaching teens how to behave in digital spaces? We’ll talk with a Bethesda-Chevy Chase student and experts who are teaching kids about navigating relationships.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, Marvin Gaye, a D.C. native would have been 80 years old this week. We're going to explore an album of previously unreleased songs by Marvin Gaye and talk about his life here.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first, last month a list of graded girls on their appearance was passed around students via text message at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland. The school did suspend one student. The young women who found themselves on that list gathered with many other students and converged on the administrations offices. But they took a different approach, they started a conversation. Joining me in studio is Paloma Delgado. She is a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. Paloma Delgado, thank you so much for joining us.
PALOMA DELGADOThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDITell us about your experience finding out about this list. How did you find out about it and what was your reaction when you saw it for the first time?
DELGADOSo when I had heard about this list I originally had no idea that I was on it. I had heard that maybe some of my friends were on it, but I did not realize that I was on the list. I was sitting in class with some friends and I glanced over to the girl sitting next to me and I noticed my name on the list.
NNAMDIAnd the reason you didn't notice because it was like second to last on the list, right?
DELGADOYeah. My name was second to last on the list, which was pretty heartbreaking to see that. And one of the -- also worst moments of seeing it in that class was knowing that the boys, who had created the list were sitting right across from me. So I immediately left the room when I found out.
NNAMDIHow did it make you and your classmates feel in general finding yourselves on the list?
DELGADOWe were all pretty heartbroken. It's easy to say that, you know, we know our worth and that we know that we are more than just numbers on a list. But to still see those numbers to see yourself ranked next to your friends is still pretty heartbreaking and pretty demeaning especially by, you know, people that you consider your classmates and your friends.
NNAMDIHow did your classmates respond?
DELGADOSo the boys responded pretty positively after we had decided to convene a meeting. Originally a lot of our classmates were kind of shocked that we were taking it so seriously calling us kind of crazy for blowing it out of proportion. But I mean, a lot of us were really affected by this. But I think after we kind of created a dialogue, people really realized the effect that this had and really understood why we took action.
NNAMDIWell, you and your classmates organized as you mentioned a class wide discussion about the incident. What was shared in that meeting? Was there any reluctance on the part of boys to participate and what were you hoping to accomplish?
DELGADOSo we were worried that there would be a reluctance from boys to come. We didn't want boys to think that we were going to be bashing them. We really just wanted to express how we were feeling and kind of tell our stories, tell our reactions to it. I think a lot of the teachers, one in particular, encouraged the boys to come. You know, nobody could be required to come, but they were encouraged to come. And we really did have a great conversation. Girls shared their stories and how they felt and the boys listened.
NNAMDIGot to say. This is quite a mature and thoughtful response. Some might have gone in a different direction, revenge, punishment. Was there any point at which the group in the discussion simply did not agree?
DELGADOThere was some disagreement about the way that, you know, of course, some people react differently and that's just how it goes. But I think there was a consensus that this was the right way to go about it to have a conversation, to discuss this, and to make the boys understand. I don't think anybody, you know, was out for blood here. I think we really wanted there to be a conversation, because like I said before these people were our peers and we wanted them to understand.
NNAMDIThe student who created the list you were on was present in that discussion. What was his reaction?
DELGADOHe listened. You know, and I think that's one of the most important things is listening. You know, not trying to fire back or trying to defend his actions. He listened and he apologized and I think that was meaningful for a lot of us. All the boys apologized, but I knew that after those apologies we also wanted to see action, right? We wanted to see the boys come out of this room and really join us in this effort. So, you know, we made it sure that toward the end that the boys were really on our side. And, you know, in this fight with us.
NNAMDIWere you surprised when you found out that one of your classmates had created this list? Have you heard of incidents like this happening before in high school? It certainly happened when I was in high school and has it happened at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before?
DELGADOHonestly, I know I was shocked to see my name on the list, but to hear that this list had been made was not very shocking to me. I've heard plenty of people. I've been speaking with parents and other students about similar lists that had been created, you know, today, in the past. So it really wasn't surprising to me that something like this was made. But I think the reaction here was really special and unique.
NNAMDIHow about the reaction in the broader community? When you and the other students started taking action, what was that response like?
DELGADOI think a lot people were kind of surprised that we took it so far. We got a lot of great reactions. But we also got a lot of negative feedback saying that, you know, we were taking this too seriously. That we were some snowflake students, who, you know, were disrupting these boys lives. And I think that that's really not the right response here. I think the right response was creating this conversation and stopping from normalizing this culture, because it has become normalized and I think that's a problem.
NNAMDITexting and being in constant digital communication with your peers allowed the list to be spread pretty quickly, but it also allowed you and your classmates to respond pretty quickly as well. How do you think technology played into this?
DELGADOSo obviously there are the negative sides to technology. The way that the list was spread around amongst boys was through, you know, technology. But the girls kind of also used technology. We used it to our advantage. We started to create efforts to meet, to convene, to plan how we were going to go to the administration, how we were going to about the discussion. And, you know, what our next steps were, which means presentations, informing the underclassmen. So we really took it to our advantage.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Barbara Huth the Education Program Manager for the D.C. Metro Area for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on helping kids and parents navigate the digital world. Barbara Huth, thank you for joining us.
BARBARA HUTHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Dr. Deborah Temkin, Senior Director for Education Research at Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization. Deborah Temkin, thank you for joining us.
DEBORAH TEMKINThank you.
NNAMDIYour research surrounds creating positive conditions for helping students learn in schools. What strikes you about this story at Bethesda-Chevy Chase?
TEMKINWell, I think first and foremost what really amazed me about this story is just how much the youth were the voices that spurred change in this situation. Often times adults assume that they have to be the ones to step in to find a solution, to solve everything without actually listening to the kids involved. Youth voice is so critical. The kids, the students, are the ones who are actually living these situations every day and they frankly know more about what's happening than adults ever will. Research demonstrates, for instance, that adults know only about maybe a third of bullying incidents or other conflicts that are happening day to day. So we have to be listening to the youth to be able to actually solve some of these issues.
NNAMDIHow does technology affect students in the school environment and especially in ways that parents may not understand?
TEMKINWell, I think we have to take a step back and understand that technology is just a tool. It's not the cause of these behaviors. As Paloma pointed out, creation of lists or bullying or other behaviors have been happening for generations. It's not because of technology that they're happening, but it does take it to a different place. It does mean that kids are in constant communication with one another, which as pointed out has both good and bad implications of it. With technology it means that things are -- there's a documented record of everything that's going on, which hasn't happened in the past. Usually if rumors are spread, you know don't know he said or she said what's happened, but here you have documented text going on.
TEMKINThis also can cause trouble. This means that kids are checking their phone very late at night. It can interrupt their sleep. It can interrupt their day during school, when they're looking at their phones instead of paying attention in class. But we have to understand that technology is not to be blamed. We have to first address the behavior behind the technology.
NNAMDIDo kids interact with technology differently than those of us who weren't raised with this kind of connectivity, those of us who are not digital natives?
TEMKINAbsolutely. It's us, adults, who really see the online world as separate from the real world. We at Child Trends did some focus groups in D.C. with students talking to them about their use of technology. And they told us that when they tell us that they're talking to their friends, they could be referring to talking to them through Snap Chat. They could be referring to them talking face to face on the phone. They really don't distinguish how they're communicating with their friends. And in fact, some of the kids told us that they will sit at the lunch table and talk to the friends, who are right across the lunch table from them on Snap Chat rather than to have the conversation out loud, because they want to keep those conversations more private.
NNAMDIBarbara Huth, you should know we invited Montgomery Public Schools to participate in this discussion. Their PIO said quoting here, "Barbara Huth should be able to explain the Digital Citizen Subcurriculum," a curriculum developed, of course, by Common Sense that's used in Montgomery County Schools. As part of your work at Common Sense, you do work outreach with schools in the Washington region and implement a Digital Citizenship Curriculum. Before we dive into what that actually teaches, what misconceptions do you think parents and schools have about the ways teens use technology?
HUTHI think that parents have some, you know, misconceptions that teens aren't aware of what they're doing and what they're sharing. I think Paloma really shared today that teens know how to use technology in positive ways. But a lot of times because they're communicating more using digital means and not face to face there can be, you know, it can be easier to have a disinhibition effect and not really thing about the potential outcomes of their actions and how they could possibly impact or hurt others whether it's intentional or not.
HUTHAnd so I think what was powerful about this story is that, you know, the students came back and talked face to face and had a discussion about how it impacted them and what are the best ways to move forward. And I'm just curious like how can we continue to have this discussion go forward. And also with our curriculum we teach these things specifically like --
NNAMDII was about to ask about the Digital Citizenship Curriculum, what it is? What is it and how is it used in schools?
HUTHSure. So we have a comprehensive Digital Citizenship Curriculum. It's free. And it covers grades K through 12. We cover six main topic areas, media balance and wellbeing, privacy and security, relationships, communications, cyberbullying, digital drama and hate speech, digital footprints and identity, and then also news, media, and literacy. And in our curriculum it's research based and in collaboration with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It takes on timely topics that educators are dealing with. And it also helps students take ownership of their digital lives.
HUTHOur lessons are grounded in social emotional learning so that it moves away from that consequence based approach where students are worried about if they do something like, "What could happen to me?" but also to think about how their actions can impact their community and beyond.
NNAMDIAnd it starts as early kindergarten.
NNAMDIWhat do you teach these younger ones?
HUTHSo they're all age-appropriate lessons. So, you know, as you're starting with the younger grades you start thinking about like how to be safe, you know, when you're using online, how to like -- like say take breaks from using technology like if you tend to be on your iPad a lot or something like that. And then as you move up through the grades it gets deeper into the content. We're having our students really think about dilemmas that are, you know, not just personal, but also moral, ethical and civic dilemmas as well.
NNAMDIBring our listeners into this conversation. Starting with Alfonso in Tacoma Park. Alfonso, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALFONSOYes, Kojo, it's very good to hear you. And I love this topic. First I'm a long time listener, first time caller. I want to hit on two points. The first point is that the youth that apparently started the list was suspended. I believe that was an egregious punishment for someone just creating a list. Two is the issue of self-esteem. You know, it's self-esteem. It's not, you know, what someone else thinks, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As well as how can we punish someone for having discernment in what they like? I knew of a list that went around when I was in high school. The girls used to grade us on looks, appearance, dress, you know, the whole bit. And we would do the same.
NNAMDIAnd you thought that was a good thing?
ALFONSOOh, yes, because I grew up in the day where everybody wasn't a winner. You know, it wasn't that you got a participation trophy. No. If you placed first, second, or third you got a trophy. You got a medal. You got an award. There are winners and losers.
NNAMDISo those things that people can do absolutely nothing about like their looks, you felt it was okay to grade people and essentially discriminate against people, who were not as good looking as the people you graded highly. You thought that was okay?
ALFONSOI think that looks go a long way to self-esteem. And this is where the parents come in.
NNAMDIWell, I allow me to have somebody more expert than me address this issue. Paloma.
DELGADOI think that this is a pretty normal reaction. People saying, well, you know, girls rank boys all the time. And that's also not okay. I think also people were also mentioning, well, aren't girls also thinking this? I think people also need to realize thinking is a lot different than writing out a list and then spreading it around to your friends. And also I think this normalization of this culture is the problem. The fact that this happened years ago doesn't make it okay then, doesn't make it okay now. And so I think really having a conversation about that, you know, is important in realizing, you know, it's okay to have opinions. But to spread these opinions and then, you know, talk about somebody's appearance in this way is demeaning and hurtful.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you for your call, Alfonso. When we come back we'll be continuing this conversation about toxic high school culture in the digital age and inviting your calls. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, we're talking about toxic high school culture in the digital age with Paloma Delgado. She's a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. Barbara Huth is the Education Program Manager for the D.C. Metro Area for Common Sense Media. That's a nonprofit focused in helping kids and parents navigate the digital world. And Dr. Deborah Temkin is the Senior Director for Education Research at Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization. I'd like to go directly back to the phones. This time to Trish in Occoquan, Virginia. Trish, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRISHHey. Hi, Kojo. Thank you so much for taking my call. I do -- before we get into the young lady's brilliant discussion of this problem. Just wanted to remind you of a day last year, when my daughter and I had a chance to stop by the station and much to our surprise had a chance to meet you in your office and take a picture together, one of the highlights of both of our years last year. So thank you so much.
NNAMDIIt was the highlight of my year. That's for sure.
TRISHThank you. Hey, Paloma, the way that you answered the last caller's opinion was brilliant. And in case I don't get any other point across in this discussion, I definitely want to start with that. I work as a cultural facilitator. So a lot of times I'll go into a group that has a culture problem and try to get to a discussion where we're not pitting one person against another. So I really like your approach of including the guys on this.
TRISHBut what I called about was a point that you used a different terminology. But I've heard this before in a lot of discussions about being overly sensitive, and it's usually directed at women or a minority group of some type. And I really just want to encourage both Paloma and everyone else listening to this phone call to kind of gravitate towards that term of being oversensitive and understand it as a micro aggression or a dog whistle if you prefer that term. But every time that someone says, you're being oversensitive. It's used to end the conversation and diminish the person.
NNAMDIAnd I am pretty sure that word came up in the conversation that Paloma Delgado organized and how did you respond to it?
DELGADOYeah, we got that comment a lot of times. Oversensitive, being crazy, taking it, you know, out of hand and we responded by saying that we thought that this was the right approach, you know. I think a lot of people had this response, because they've seen this occur so often of lists occurring or people, you know, discussing other people's appearances online through social media. And I think, you know, we felt in our hearts that this was the right way to discuss this issue and that we weren't being overly sensitive. That we were doing what we believe was right.
NNAMDIIndeed. Trish, you can't know what people are overly sensitive to unless you have a conversation about what they're sensitive to in the first place and that was the conversation that was taking place here. So thank you very much for your call. One more question for you, Paloma. The lessons that Barbara is talking about, are they familiar to you? What were you taught in school about things like cyberbullying and other online challenges for kids? And how were effective do you think it is?
DELGADOYeah, so we have a lot of those kind of presentations. We have sometimes people come in that the school organizes to discuss bullying and discuss, you know, rape prevention and things of that kind of manner. And I think a lot of times it is effective, but I think a lot of times what's also effective is having teen voices kind of, you know, start these conversations. I think a lot of times it's effective to have personal stories that people can relate to that people can resonate to. And I think that's also why we are finding it very important that we hold presentations.
DELGADOUs, the students, coming into these classes speaking with underclassmen because it's one thing to have an adult speak to you about the importance of not bullying, the importance of, you know, understanding your self-worth. And it's another thing to have maybe a fellow classmate or somebody that you know is a sibling to you or a friend to you or maybe on your lacrosse team come and speak to you about the importance of this and how they've been affected by it.
NNAMDIBarbara, your curriculum is designed for schools. But presumably it's not just schools that have the responsibility to teach teenagers about navigating their digital relationships. How much should parents be involved and what should the students learn to navigate themselves?
HUTHI think the only way for this to work is if it's a whole community approach. We can't just let this all fall on the schools or the students themselves, but as parents as well. We need to, you know, think of ways that we can support and listen to our kids. And also just model what we want to see with what we're doing online as well and showing them that.
NNAMDIDeborah, should schools be tuned in to how students are behaving online even if they're not posting or communicating during school hours?
TEMKINAbsolutely. So there's a couple things to note about this. First, because students in particular are not necessarily differentiating between their behaviors online and in person, what they're doing online is probably a reflection about what's going on in school that school personnel are just not seeing. So if someone comes to you with cyberbullying that's been happening online or other forms of online communication, they should go and look. What is happening between those kids at school?
TEMKINAnd another piece of this is some of the state laws actually require schools to be addressing these even if they don't think they are. Virginia -- among the D.C. Metro Area, Virginia is the only one in their state bullying laws that doesn't cover off campus conduct. Maryland actually has criminal sanctions for cyberbullying. And D.C. specifies that if the behavior that's occurring offline or off campus is creating a hostile environment on campus, the school should absolutely be looking into it and investigating and following the correct procedures.
NNAMDIHere is Beth in Alexandria, Virginia. Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETHHi. Thanks for taking my call. It's such a pleasure to be part of this conversation as a parent of a teenager, who's attempting to navigate some of these really sticky situations. And I think one of the things I thought technology would do was help to bring about connection and relationships. And what I actually see happening with my own son is the wanting to be part of something sometimes precipitates things being shared that are not appropriate. And having to parent and influence something that's out of your control can be really challenging.
BETHI think the second thing I've noticed that I didn't anticipate is that the communication between the youth and the kids isn't actually communication a lot of times. It's one liners or jokes or images that aren't building relationships. And so I just wonder if you have any thoughts on fostering positive use of technology and how parents can help influence their children's interactions in a world that they're not actually engaged in.
HUTHSure. So I think something that we ask our students in our curriculum is to, you know, before they post something or share something really just slow down, also explore different perspectives. You know, before they react to something maybe seek facts and evidence. Also envision impacts and how, you know, what they do may impact other people or how they react to a situation. And then also take action just like Paloma and her friends did as well at BCC.
NNAMDIAnd you, Deborah?
TEMKINYeah, so I also want to stress that social media often can create this false sense of reality for a lot of folks. Most people, kids and adults included portray sort of their ideal lives online rather than posting about some of the challenges or struggles that they're having on a day to day basis. And this creates a sense that, everyone else has a better life than I do, and can drive some of the mental health issues that we're seeing in our youth. Unfortunately it's really hard to draw causal lines between any of this and mental health issues and suicidality all are multi causal. But there has been some link with social media and the fact that people aren't seeing other people struggle. So I think it's really important to have conversations with kids about the fact that what they're seeing online may not be the real person that they're interacting with.
NNAMDIHere now is Larry in Alexandria, Virginia. Larry, your turn.
LARRYHi. I've got a 13 year old daughter and we have installed an application on her phone that allows us to monitor all of her communications, but in a way that uses an algorithm that detects things like cyberbullying or sexual conversations or violence or anything to that effect. We can't look at everything she does all the time and it would be somewhat unrealistic to expect us to. But this application will allow us to do it and it will give us alerts when something hits the algorithm that we should pay attention to. And it will also give us some suggestions on how we approach that conversation.
NNAMDII was about to ask about that because we're running out of time very quickly. So I'll ask you, Barbara, what advice to you have for talking cross generationally about digital habits as our caller just mentioned whether it's explaining how parents feel about this or explaining how it plays into a larger teen culture?
HUTHI think the first place we can start is just, you know, having empathy, realizing that our kids, what they're going through is important and not to discount it as just like something silly that, you know, our kids our going through, because they're of a certain age. But that it's very real, and to take the time to listen to their stories, and then also share the things and, you know, the concerns, and, you know, the anxiety that as an adult we have with our digital lives as well.
NNAMDIPaloma, you and your classmates have kept the conversations going. What do you have planned for the next two weeks? I understand you're putting on an event tonight.
DELGADOYes, we are. So I actually was organizing this event before the list even emerged. But now that the list kind of came about it's made it even almost kind of perfect to start a discussion. So tonight we are having an event to discuss masculinity, sexual violence, and "boys will be boys" culture. So the event will begin at six o'clock at the Avenue Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in D.C. And that will just be an opportunity for some BCC students to share their own experiences.
DELGADOWe have some speakers coming from Promundo to discuss masculinity as it relates to on a global perspective. And then at 8:00 p.m. at the Avalon Theater we are showing a screening of the film "Roll Red Roll," which details the Steubenville rape case that occurred back in 2012. And so that film will be shown at around 8:00 p.m. and then we'll have at 9:30 a panel discussion led by a team of experts to discuss the film. And how we kind of managed, you know, toxicity and, you know, masculinity in the age of technology.
NNAMDIWell, good luck. Paloma Delgado, thank you so much for joining us.
DELGADOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBarbara Huth, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Dr. Deborah Temkin, thank you for joining us.
TEMKINThanks so much.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, Marvin Gaye, a D.C. native would have been 80 years old this week. We explore his life here that a lot of people don't know about and an album of previously unreleased songs of Marvin Gaye. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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