By Kylie Mohr
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — School officials are investigating a recently surfaced Instagram account that posted videos of students fighting and encouraged others to send in footage.
Jackson Hole High School’s school resource law enforcement officer and staff members trained in restorative justice are digging into the matter. They learned of the page before a News&Guide inquiry last week. The page disappeared overnight Feb. 13 to 14. School officials alerted parents Tuesday in an email about a sexual assault “game” in Casper.
“Any incident that happens in our community that spills into teaching and learning in our school is part of what the school has to deal with,” Assistant Principal Dan Abraham said. “When a kid is in class, they need to be able to focus on learning and not what someone else in another room is mad about or thinking about. Or seeing them in the hallway and stressing out about that. There’s enough stressors to make high school hard enough as is, so ignoring those things is not helpful.”
He hopes the high school can “try to repair relationships and make sure kids can be in the same building together.” The school district tries to encourage kindness, respect, conflict resolution, positive peer interactions and more in students from kindergarten through 12th grade by using social emotional curriculum.
“Fighting is not part of the culture of our high school or of our school district,” Abraham said.
Even if students are suspended or expelled as a result of the investigation, the school district won’t share that information. Disciplinary actions in a student’s educational record are confidential and protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
“I’m not going to release any information about individual students, groups of students or consequences that are applied to them or anything along those lines,” Abraham said.
Called “jhhs_fights,” the page’s description was accompanied by a picture of Jackson Hole High School principal Scott Crisp. Abraham described the use of the photo as “borderline slanderous and not OK.”
The page’s name was changed to “jhhs_arm_wrestles” the evening of Feb. 13 with a different photo before being deleted entirely shortly thereafter. The school district is still working on determining who the creator of the account is and doesn’t know if that person or Instagram took down the page.
As of that night, the account had almost 720 followers and had posted three times, with the first on Feb. 6. One video had been seen over a thousand times.
Reports of conflict would be investigated, video or no video, Abraham said. Physical violence and fighting on school grounds, as well as provoking other students to do so, isn’t allowed. But simply creating the page may not be punishable by the school district or the platform if its rules for content are followed.
“A student’s freedom of speech would allow them to make any social media accounts they want,” Abraham said.
The school district said the goal isn’t to focus on punishment.
“Consequences are consequences. Our goal is really to figure out what’s going on and solve that root problem,” Abraham said. “No matter how many punitive consequences I slap on a kid, if there’s still an underlying conflict between two students it’s just going to come back up again.”
The account was private, meaning only accepted followers could see content. News&Guide staff watched the videos but chose not to publish them.
The videos showed three fights between male students. Videos depicted a student on the ground being repeatedly punched in the face by another student straddling him on the sidewalk, two students wrestling each other onto the snow and hitting each other, and students exchanging blows upright until one appears to show signs of distress.
In each, a small crowd surrounded the students, egging them on and filming them with their phones.
The majority of the students Abraham recognizes are in high school. But the fact that other profiles are tagged in the videos isn’t helpful in terms of the scope of the investigation.
“It’s difficult to nail down the lovely world of anonymity that comes from social media at times,” he said.
Online, students heckled each other in the comments and appeared to challenge each other to additional fights. It’s unclear if they were joking. Others chimed in to say they had better videos to share.
Using the Instagram poll function, the page identified some students involved by their first name and asked followers to choose who they thought would win.
Grappling with student behavior online isn’t an entirely new challenge for school administrators, but it’s one that’s emerged and morphed in the last decade. The News&Guide reported that a Jackson teen “fight night” video drew attention when it appeared on YouTube in 2009. The 10-minute video showed about 20 teens throwing punches in a series of organized one-one-one fights in a garage at a student’s house.
In the earlier days of social media, the newspaper reported that administrators had their “first disciplinary encounter with information gained from the Internet just a few weeks” earlier.
“This is a new arena for us,” Jackson Hole High School Principal Gary Elliott said at the time. “Do we have a right to go there?”
Nowadays, the school district encourages families to actively monitor their students’ social media and appreciates it when disturbing or upsetting finds are brought to administrators’ attention.
Although student discipline regarding social media “comes in waves” for Abraham, he said, internet platforms and sharing sites influence everyone’s behavior daily.
“The ability to impulsively act and record and distribute I think is impacting more than just high school students,” he said. “I think it’s impacting adults across the country.”
Since social media can work in detrimental and beneficial ways, Abraham said, he wished there would be accounts that showcase the positive instead of giving attention to something that’s “a minor part of an overall culture of the school.”