Tuesday, March 2, 2010

To The Winnipeg School Division: the correct answer is "thank you."

Last week, when news broke about two judgmentally-impaired Winnipeg high school teachers apparently simulating a lap dance and fellatio at a pep rally, the story roared through both the social and mainstream media. It began with a short video posted to YouTube by a student who recorded it on a cellphone, and quickly garnered international media attention including coverage on Fox News.

In case you missed it, here's the video:

In PR class, we talked about how the school might have been well-advised to reach out to parents the very day the dance happened, even before being “caught” by the YouTube video, to explain that two staff members had made a very poor decision, to underline its commitment to providing a safe, comfortable and appropriate learning environment for their children, and to promise to deal with the teachers involved.

The foundation of good PR is a healthy relationship based on openness and mutual respect. Given this case, we discussed how one of the school's most important audiences, the parents of its students, might have appreciated the administration's proactive admission of the incident. Between the lines, such an act would have said "keeping our relationship with you healthy means more to us than the possibility of avoiding public embarrassment."

That doesn't mean parents would be happy to hear the news, and it doesn't mean parents would be any less outraged. But they would at least know that if something bad happened in their child's school, the school would have the integrity to come forward and let them know about it.

Yesterday, the Winnipeg Free Press reports, "school board chairwoman Jackie Sneesby refused to rule out punishment for the students" who posted videos of the incident to YouTube, since the school board has rules against the use of cellphone video cameras in school.

Sometimes, the rules should take a back seat.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m big on rules. I like making them, I’m more comfortable following them. I think they create order out of chaos; and I think that environments in which (reasonable) rules are followed can be more productive than those in which they aren’t.


This story hasn't shown The Winnipeg School Division in its best light.

1. It hired teachers who exhibit this kind of judgment in the first place, and put them in a position to set an example for Winnipeg teenagers.
2. It hosts the kind of high school environment in which at least some people feel this kind of dance might be acceptable.
3. It hosts the kind of high school environment in which this kind of dance can play out without any other responsible adult intervening.
4. It remains unclear what repercussions the teachers involved will face, beyond "suspension with pay."

Given all that, I’d advise The Winnipeg School Division to let this cellphone infraction go – and to clearly say so if anyone should ask. Yes, rules are important – but one of their key audiences, the public whose children they’re employed to educate, may legitimately feel that had these students not broken the cellphone rule, the teachers involved (and school administration) mightn’t have had to answer for the behaviour. And accordingly, that this sort of thing might have been allowed to happen again.

So, just ignore a blatantly broken rule?

Of course not. But there are many ways the school's administration could address the issue with students that wouldn't involve punishment for the "offenders," while making it clear that the rules exist for a good reason and will be enforced in all but extraordinary circumstances.

Today's Free Press story drew a number of comments from readers who felt the students should be punished because they posted the video to YouTube rather than taking it to the principal or the school board. Personally, I wouldn't expect high school students to understand the bureaucracy of the educational system; I think it entirely possible that from their perspective, the show was sanctioned by the administration since some of its "officials" (i.e. their teachers) attended, witnessed the incident, and didn't stop it. If that's the case, I couldn't blame them for thinking it was fair game for public consumption.

Opening the lines of communication with students could help with that, too. If school administration told them unequivocally that its door is always open in case of student concerns, it might find itself better-equipped to address future issues before they become PR nightmares.

Whistleblower or attention-seeker?

Today's story in the Free Press also bears a number of reader comments taking issue with the characterization of the students who posted videos to YouTube as whistleblowers, painting them instead as attention-seekers whose objective wasn't to expose wrongdoing at all.

Maybe they're right, maybe not... but it doesn't matter. The effect of the students' action was to bring attention to bad behaviour that hadn't otherwise gotten out. To punish them now could seem like retaliation for the public embarrassment, the blame for which rests squarely on the shoulders of the school no matter how you slice it.

If a whistleblower breaks the rules in exposing wrongdoing, an organization committed to the best interests of its audiences shouldn't concern itself with ensuring a price is paid for the broken rule.

Even if the whistleblower's motivation wasn't to blow the whistle, the correct answer is "thank you."


  1. Great post Melanie. I know if my son went there, to be informed on the incident would make me feel a bit more comfortable on the matter, rather than seeing it on the news or YouTube.

  2. Wow, Winnipeg School Division, of all the issues to focus on, cell phone videos?

  3. Very good post! I completely agree with you: the students should not be punished, no matter what their motivations were when they posted the video. They probably should not have been using their cellphones in school, but it's human nature to want to get a "train wreck" on film. Plus, I'm sure once the dance started, a large number of students had their phones out, whether they were filming it, taking photos or texting their friends about it. Doesn't seem fair to me to punish one or two when there were likely many more offenders.

  4. Very refreshing to read. I wonder if anyone on the school board is listening? Sometimes bureaucracy and policies should just take a backseat to common sense and fairness.

  5. All good points!

    Jennifer: it's funny you mention your son, because I was thinking of my daughter as I wrote this post.

    In particular, I remembered a time when she was a baby, and I arrived to pick her up from day care to be greeted by the Director of the centre, who wanted to tell me personally that my daughter had been bitten by another child that day.

    My daughter was too little to talk at the time, and the bite hadn't left much of a mark - I would never have known had she not told me.

    I knew that, and the Director knew that.

    But because she was/is serious about her commitment to the parents of the children in her care, she addressed it with me the very same day, and reassured me about how they had handled the situation.

    I walked out of there feeling even better about my choice of daycare than I had before (and that's saying a lot). THAT is good PR.