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Instagram photo rattles OCHS student's life

Last year, Serena George thought she was the ideal student. She was class president three years running at Oregon City High School, had a 3.5 GPA, planned school dances and devoted 90 hours a year to the student council.

by: SUBMITTED - Serena GeorgeAs the junior class president, George thought she was on track to make her dream of running for student-body president come true, but that dream came to an end late last spring, when she was told by administrators that she was being removed from the leadership class.

Administrators showed her an Instagram photo that was brought in by another student, who said it showed George drinking at a party. Because George, like all student leaders and athletes, signed a statement saying she would not drink alcohol, administrators felt they had just cause to remove her from leadership class.

Although we may never know the truth of what happened in George’s case, there is evidence that cyberbullying is becoming a larger problem these days, said Lee Shaker, PSU assistant communications professor. Bullying has been a part of growing up for a long time, but now that young people have access to social media tools, “this behavioral staple will migrate to new, digital contexts.”

George repeatedly told the administration that she had not been drinking, and pointed out there was no alcoholic beverage in the photo. She brought in her mother, Panadda George, who supported her daughter, but to no avail.

“I was posing jokingly, lying on the ground, clutching my phone, but someone told the administration I had been drinking, and they would not tell me who gave them the photo,” George said.

“She was just goofing around, being a kid,” her mom said.

But, in spite of the fact that George told administrators she was being accused of something she did not do, she was told she wasn’t fit to run for student-body president.

Administrators also called in the young man who took the Instagram photo, and asked him to delete it, which he did, so a copy of the photo is not available for review.

George said, “I tried fighting against the administration with my mom by my side. They said that everything would be ‘confidential,’ and I would receive no consequences. I’ve never had a referral before or even been in trouble with the school or administration before. My records were and still are clean. That was all my junior year, and I tried to set it aside and move on.”

Fast forward to this past December, when George, 17, decided to apply for a Rose Princess scholarship from the Portland Rose Festival Association. It was due in early January and needed to be signed by a counselor or teacher and an administrator.

After filling out the form, George gave it to her counselor who returned it, telling her that an administrator had refused to sign the application, citing the events of the previous year.

“They took away my dreams of becoming ASB president last year, and now this year are trying to attempt to take away my future,” George said.

Didway stands by decision

Vice Principal Kathy Johnson and then-Principal Nancy Bush-Lang were the two administrators who primarily dealt with the situation, George said, noting that Bush-Lang has since retired.

Oregon City School District Superintendent Larry Didway reviewed the two incidents relating to George’s case, and said he completely supported the action of the high school administration.

“Students who participate in extracurricular activities sign contracts that hold them to a high standard of behavior both on and off campus as representatives of the school. When that contract is violated off campus, the student may forfeit continued participation in the extracurricular activity, even though there may be no school disciplinary action,” he said.

Didway also supports the fact that an educator did not feel comfortable signing the scholarship application because that person wished to maintain “personal and professional integrity.”

Didway pointed out that a counselor did write a letter of recommendation, based upon George’s positive attributes, and did provide her with information on additional scholarships.

Repercussions continue

After last year’s incident, George immediately felt that “people were looking at me differently, and the administrators were looking at me differently. I felt like there was a secret committee out to get me.”

She was made to feel like “nothing,” George said, adding, “Every day I get dirty looks from old classmates in student council and from administration. Will they refuse to sign papers for all troubled kids? Will they continue to ignore the youth who only want what’s best for their future? Because in the end, that’s all I want — to become a pharmacist and receive my education at Oregon State University.”

The story is bigger than what happened to her, George said, noting that she was given a photo of someone else in student council who was holding a beer at a party, and she gave that to administrators and that person was removed from leadership class, as well. And she thinks a third person also was removed for a similar reason.

George wants her story to be told, she said, because “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through. We all deserve fresh starts. And I thought mine was this year. Why would they not want to help me get a scholarship? If administrators are refusing to support me because of something I didn’t do, then they will do the same to others.”

In the end, the situation has made her a stronger person, George said, and not being in student council has freed her up to work on her college applications. She has been accepted at Portland State University and is still waiting to hear from OSU.

She has a part-time job at Forte Floral in Oregon City and volunteers three days a week at Sandy’s Circle of Friends, a preschool in Beavercreek.

George’s mom supports her and noted, “She’s stubborn and a go-getter. She is not going to let anyone get in her way. She doesn’t back down, and I am proud of her.”

Social media on rise

So what could George have done differently last year when faced with this situation?

Her family could have contacted a lawyer, “but that’s easy to say. First you have to figure out what kind of lawyer, and then you have to pay the lawyer’s fees,” said Tung Yin, a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School.

And there’s that other question: Was she the victim of bullying or harassment?

“Cyberbullying is typically a peer-to-peer interaction in which new media technologies are used to harass, shame or otherwise impugn one or more targets. These interactions may be public or private, but they don’t usually involve authority figures. To me, this event has more in common with an old-fashioned tattletale,” said PSU’s Lee Shaker.

“Kids will be kids. Inevitably they’ll make mistakes and, unfortunately, in the age of smartphones, these mistakes can be easily preserved. Ultimately, I’m afraid that students’ best protection against tattletales is keeping themselves out of situations that may be seen as incriminating. So, if you don’t want a picture to surface, don’t let that picture be taken,” Shaker said.

Parents should talk to their children about the consequences of bullying and “also the ramifications of taking ill-advised photos. Kids have always made mistakes, and we’ve always forgiven them. We’ll just have to come to terms with forgiving kids who are recorded making their mistakes in the future,” he said.

Gayle Y. Thieman, associate professor in the School of Education at PSU, teaches technology to secondary pre-service teachers at the university, where one of the units focuses on the ethical use of media and digital citizenship.

“As part of the coursework, the graduate students who are future teachers develop an Internet safety plan they will teach their students. We also talk about how to discuss with youth the dangers of risky behavior and the permanence of anything uploaded to the Internet,” she said.

“If a student believes they have been harassed or threatened by anyone, whether personally or through social media, the student needs to talk to a family member, and if it is school- related, report it to school administration. Students can also report misuse of social media to the digital host.”

News editor Raymond Rendleman contributed to this story.