For months, a close-up of a North Carolina public school teacher’s rear end was featured on an anonymous YouTube video set to the Van Halen hit, “Hot for Teacher.’

 

By the time the elementary school teacher found out about the clip, which had been taken during an innocent and rather typical fifth-grade awards ceremony, more than 200,000 people had viewed the video.

Aghast and angry, the teacher contacted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS)- her former employer-and asked for help in getting the posting taken down.

CMS contacted Google, which owns YouTube, citing privacy concerns for the teacher and her young students, as well as possible violations of the company’s published “terms of use agreement.  To its credit, Google responded quickly, removing the offending post the same day.

The damage had already been cone, though.  Blogs and other social-networking sites quickly filled Google’s void, as anonymous citizen journalist reposted and commented on the offending video.

The teacher also contacted the local news media, a move the ultimately landed her on ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) Weekend Edition and on the GMA web site, which reach millions.

The scenario illustrates a classic new media dilemma for teachers and school administrators: How do you maintain your dignity and credibility as a professional, when just doing y our job and doing it all-combined with some digital slight-of-hand- can land you in an embarrassing video with a worldwide audience?  How do you address the issue without calling more attention to a potentially embarrassing or career-threatening situation?

“The video was three-and-a-half minutes of me.  It would go to my face, to my butt, to my face,” the teacher, Kerri McIntyre, explained on GMA, saying she found out about the YouTube clip from a former student teacher. “And then he had his fun zooming in to my butt.”

As McIntyre discovered, the combination of digital video, desktop film-making, and anonymous citizen journalism-where everyone with a computer and a camera are publishers-can quickly turn into a cyber nightmare.

And think about all those minor students featured on a web site many of their parents don’t allow them to access.

Because the posting, while offensive, wasn’t criminal, the district most likely would not be able to get a subpoena for the IP address, so the teacher would have to file a civil suit to find out who posted the video.  Plus, the most likely culprit is a parent, family member, or guest of one of the “graduating” fifth graders=none of whom a school or district has any control or authority over, unlike employees or students.

The situation drives home the reality that privacy in the digital age is increasingly rare, given the ubiquitous nature of cell-phone cameras and video recorders.

Teachers are an attractive target:  A quick search of YouTube yielded 91,600 results for “teacher” and 251 results for “angry teacher” as of press time.

While some of these videos are posted by students, others are-incredibly-posted by adults, some of them so-called “real” teachers who apparently don’t have a clue that sexually provocative or explicit videos might compromise their ability to work effectively and appropriately with impressionable young people.

Because banning camera, cell phones, and camcorders at school events and public celebrations isn’t practical, enforceable, or wise, school administrators and teachers are going to have a hard time putting this genie back in the bottle.

And, with internet privacy rights ill-defined, legal remedies are limited. Anonymous speech enjoys First Amendment protection, which is why the ACLU and other advocacy groups are fighting lawsuits that seek to unveil online critics’ identities.  Typically filed by corporations or public figures, these lawsuits seek to limit public participation by intimidating or silencing anonymous speech.  Called “cyber SLAPPs,” the lawsuits represent a new twist on the old tactic of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

In the digital free-for-all the web represents, verifying information, vetting and quoting sources, citing references, checking for accuracy, staying neutral, clearly separating opinion from fact, providing balance, and other hallowed journalism standards have gone the way of “fair and balanced coverage” on network television or talk radio.

With the lines between news and entertainment blurred, there is little that victims of malicious or embarrassing cyber attacks can do, other than appealing to web site publishers and internet service providers (ISPs) or applying public relations or political pressure, as the North Carolina teacher chose to do.

One thing is clear: It’s a sad day when caring, competent teachers cant do their jobs without their body parts and faces showing up inappropriately on the World Wide Web.

Nora Carr is Chief Communications Officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications .Reprinted with permission from eSchool News, October, 2007