Care and Feeding

My Teenager Made a Big Mistake Trying to Hold Her Teacher “Accountable”

Should I punish her despite her positive intentions?

A hand holds a phone displaying the Instagram logo over a colored background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Karsten Winegeart/Unsplash.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Three weeks ago, my 14-year-old daughter “Taylor” was involved in an Instagram pile-on regarding her math teacher. Apparently, the teacher (who is white) was involved in a conflict with a Hispanic student not in my daughter’s class. Taylor got her information about the conflict thirdhand and felt the teacher was being racist and needed to be “held accountable.” (We are also white and have been trying to instill the importance of calling our fellow white folks in.)

Taylor started an anonymous Instagram account directly targeting the teacher and collecting stories from other students of unfair behavior via anonymous submission. She received two submissions before I was called into the assistant principal’s office to discuss the situation. Well, as we could probably have predicted, Taylor was misinformed about the original conflict. The school investigated the conflict and found the teacher had handled everything appropriately. There was even documentation showing the student had lied and forged fake “evidence.” But at that point, Taylor’s Instagram account was active and the damage had been done.

My husband and I are at a loss as to what to do. The teacher is understandably devastated at the creation of an “Instagram hate account” at her expense. I don’t know that Taylor can continue to be in her class. Moreover, I’m deeply upset that Taylor would engage in this sort of behavior. This approach to justice does not align with our values. Do you have any thoughts on what we can do from here? Do we punish Taylor, despite her positive intentions? Ground her from Instagram? Have her sit down with the teacher she targeted? Please help.

—Sick of Social Media

Dear Sick of Social Media,

I’ve mentioned this before around here, and I’ll say it again: If you’re going to shoot your shot as a social justice warrior, you better not miss. Unfortunately, Taylor missed very badly, and it could end up affecting an innocent teacher’s career. Not only that, but these mistakes make it harder for real bad behavior to be taken seriously.

Although her mistake was awful, I’m not here to drag a 14-year-old kid in my column because of it. The very least you can do is teach Taylor a powerful message about accountability—which means she needs to set up a private meeting with the teacher (without you or your husband holding her hand) and own up to her mistake. Afterward, you need to set up a separate meeting with the teacher and possibly the principal to apologize for your daughter’s behavior and figure out next steps from here. I have no clue how her teacher will react to both meetings. Maybe she’ll chalk it up to teenage behavior on social media and move on. Maybe she’ll be pissed that her reputation was dragged through the mud over unsubstantiated rumors and never want to see your daughter’s face again. No matter how she reacts, you and Taylor need to sincerely apologize and let the chips fall where they may.

Going forward, you need to teach her that standing up for marginalized groups is admirable, but she shouldn’t transform into a vigilante in the process. Real human lives are at stake when mistakes are made like this, so in the future, you should have her come to you with any potential wrongdoing she notices at school or in her community. Then you can both do your research and approach the proper authority figures to ensure it’s handled properly and privately.

I doubt you’ll need to do anything else regarding punishment; she should feel awful enough as is.

—Doyin

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