The social media phenomenon known as memes is taking schools into a new domain when it comes to what students can and can't say publicly about teachers at their school.
Memes are internet-generated pictures to which people add tongue-in-cheek captions through an online meme generator. Most are simple humour; others push the boundaries.
At Westlake Boys' High School, it seems a few of the students pushed the boundaries too far last week by creating memes making personal jokes about teachers. Students were told to take down the Westlake Memes Facebook page. A number of boys were also called to the principal's office to explain why they shouldn't be sanctioned for their postings or comments. They were told to delete all their posts as soon as they got home.
John (not his real name) did just as he was told, but he wasn't happy about it. "It's like they are going against freedom of speech," he says.
David Ferguson, the school's headmaster, informed parents about the activity in a newsletter last week.
"It has come to our attention this week that a number of students have been posting inappropriate comments about the school and individual members of staff online.
"I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to remind your sons that public spaces online are just that:public. If a student publishes a comment online, particularly one that names an individual member of staff, he can expect us to take the appropriate action," he said.
Mr Ferguson told The Aucklander that the school has high expectations of its students in all areas of school life.
"We expect them to represent themselves and their school in a manner of which they can be proud.
"If we are made aware of offensive comments about our school being posted on Facebook, it is our duty to point this out to the student concerned and his parents. If a student is offensive about a specific member of staff, we will deal with the matter appropriately. It is not acceptable for a Westlake student to be offensive about a member of staff in a public forum."
The original Westlake Memes pages had more than 1000 "likes" and a new one has popped up since Friday, called The Uncontrolled Westlake Memes. By Tuesday it had 260 likes.
A number of other schools also have memes pages made by students. Most of the pictures posted are funny only to students of a school as "in jokes". But school officials are concerned the jokes can be hurtful.
Howick College principal Iva Ropati says his school tries to instil in the students that they are welcome to use social media but not to put others down. "It's as simple as that really. They must know where the lines are drawn. We make no apologies for monitoring the internet.
"I have spoken to the students. If they want to set up Facebook pages of any type, they must remember any information, pictures or comment must be used in an appropriate way otherwise it will be taken seriously."
He said the Howick Memes page was also closed down. "But they keep on popping up. That's the problem when there is no monitoring of them. Anyone can create their own page. There's nothing I can do to stop them from doing that. That's why it's better for us to educate our students to accept that they must be used appropriately."
"It's one of the features of modern-day life," agrees John Heyes, Mangere College principal. "If some people are wanting to be damaging, malicious and hurtful, electronic media allows that to happen."
"You can have all the policies you want but they're meaningless if there's no way to apply them," he says.
A Rosmini College official says it's not a simple problem. "Some have been taken down, but other pages have opened up again."
The school currently has the Rosmini College Memes page
"We're taking legal advice as to what we may or may not do."
Students at Takapuna Grammar seem to be aware of the issue and the moderator of the Takapuna Grammar Memes page issued some guidance this week saying: "New rules will be in place to prevent mishaps, staff bullying and general disrespect towards others. Any post breaking these rules will be removed and any repeat offenders banned."
Another student sensibly pointed out: "If this wasn't a public forum, it wouldn't be restricted, but as it is, they can protest defamatory posts."
A popular NZ memes page (Facebook.com/AotearoaMemes) has also banned some of the contributors for offensive memes.
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