Planet Princeton

Swastika, racist and sexist language added to 8th grade online document at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton

 

Racist language, sexist language and a swastika were added to an eighth grade science document that was accessible online by students at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton.

John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr sent to letter to parents on Monday regarding the document, asking parents to more vigilant in monitoring their kids’ internet presence.

“The data points were replaced with student names, racially and sexually charged language, and references to an internet sub-culture that thrives on negative stereotypes,” Burr wrote, without identifying the group. “Featured prominently in the center of the document was a large swastika.”

 

On Oct. 30, the first day back from the class trip to Washington, D.C., eighth graders participated in a science lab, performed experiments, and input data in a Google spreadsheet on a computer at the front of a science classroom. To speed up the entry of data, all 261 eighth-grade students were given access to the spreadsheet to add data from home.

Staff members at the school reported on Friday, Nov. 3, that  “dramatic, horrific, and insensitive language had been gradually inserted into this science document during evening hours over the course of the school week,” Burr wrote.

“I am deeply troubled to have to report this to all of our families today. JW remains dedicated to building partnerships with our families that thrive on open communication. We are committed to making JW more welcoming, instructionally excellent, and most importantly, a safe place for our students to live and learn,” Burr wrote. “At this time, I am imploring our families to do more than simply ask their child about this incident. It is essential that we work together to use this opportunity to encourage our students to actively stand up to messages of hate. The profane acts of a few persons have caused unnecessary harm to the school culture and to the school community.”

Burr said upstanders need to “speak against egregious examples of ignorance and hostility.”  Bystanders send the signal that such examples are permissible, he wrote, calling on any students or parents with knowledge about the incident to reach out to him. It is unclear from his letter how edits to the Google spreadsheet could not be tracked to individual Gmail accounts. The ability to track users would depend on how user permissions were set up in document settings.

“I am deeply sorry to my two staff members who were thoughtful about how to recapture our students’ attention after a great Washington, D.C. trip, and on the day before Halloween, with a fun and exciting lab assignment, only to see it ruined by truly poor decision-making and gross disrespect,” Burr wrote. “And I am deeply sorry to the students who read the highly inappropriate content. I am hopeful that we can stand together against such wrongs, and stand together to promote respect for all students and cultures.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • William J Brown

    That’s very likely, and understandable.

    But … its also 2017. Gmail has been around for more than 10 years, and Google Documents almost as long as Gmail.

    Public and Private sector schools alike take — how many? — “teacher preparation” days **during the academic year** for what’s described as “training / preparation / meetings” etc etc.

    Here in NJ, its an open joke that for the 2 days in November that teachers take off, they are *not* in Atlantic City at the “Annual Teacher Convention” — but, coupled with the (cough, cough) “sick days” that are lumped on at the beginning of the same week, they are instead in Orlando with their own families.

    My point is two-fold: Ridicule the lack of training, overall. And, secondly, to ask “Why isn’t basic web use / “modern teaching practice” more refined, so that “unwitting mistakes” like giving out unsecured links that can be manipulated by inevitable bad actors remediated?

    Sure, mistakes will still happen, and there are no “absolutes” ensuring they will not. But, we can all likely agree that the level of “contemporary practical knowledge” on how to use basic web tools is pretty much lacking, and this story is a prime example.

    Now, add in realities about School/Student Data becoming compromised by hackers (for potential blackmail — look it up, its a real and growing problem, covered on Page 1 of WSJ within the last 3 weeks), and its beyond “a cranky parent complaining about it” — its a very real issue, and the potential negative impacts and many.

    Teaching profession = time to grow up!

  • TaxPoorInPrinceton

    I think an administrator/teacher unwittingly made a mistake here. These things happen and the school/administrator/teacher shouldn’t be blamed. While I hope better practices are adopted going forward, we can’t protect ourselves against all the malicious acts people do. The school/police should be able to track the perps down as IP addresses are traceable.

  • Liz Winslow

    Precisely. I am not looking to stir up another charter fight here, but I’ll point out for reference that charter only allows edits to google docs from students’ pcs email accounts expressly because some kid sooner or later will make a bad choice – charter knows it isn’t immune – and then the perpetrator can be found and dealt with swiftly. I don’t see why this isn’t a standard best practice for all schools using shared docs.

  • Liz Winslow

    I can see not releasing names of minors to the public, but I can’t see at all how this wouldn’t be traceable. Even a throwaway account would’ve made a posting from an identifiable ISP address.

  • TaxPoorInPrinceton

    This is a hate crime against our children. Both JW administrators and the Princeton police should investigate and determine who committed it.

  • > If, instead, the authors only permissions precise email addresses, then the offending accounts must be identifiable. If the school leadership is not identifying the offending accounts in such a circumstance, it could be only because that’s their willful choice.

    Yep.

  • So … Google Docs has the ability to track the who/what/when of edits. The school can get this information.

  • GNR_Princeton

    It sounds like the assignment was not well thought out. If the article is accuarate, the school needs to be more careful when assigning technology-assisted work. In addition to using the opportunity as a teachable moment for the 8th graders, it should be used as a teachable moment for the teachers that they cannot simply guide kids to go online, provide instruction, and not vigilently monitor the process.

  • William J Brown

    Why can’t the accounts be identified?

    Having used Google Documrbts quite a bit, I suspect the document author simply “shared” a View/Edit hyperlink to the doc, allowing anyone with the link —which could be forwarded anywhere, to anyone — to access and edit it. And that would have been horrendously sloppy and, frankly, stupid. The inevitable then happens…

    If, instead, the authors only permissions precise email addresses, then the offending accounts must be identifiable. If the school leadership is not identifying the offending accounts in such a circumstance, it could be only because that’s their willful choice. Perhaps they are trying to avoid litigation or impugning the reputation of a VIP family?

    In any event, don’t blame the technology; as with most things, it’s human error and willful ignorance of basic usage of these technologies by those with controlling authority, and debauchery, debased morality and defective values by those who posted the vile content.

  • resident

    I agree. The people responsible have to be discovered. This is terrible.

  • John Boyle

    The public schools should have a technology group/firm who should be able to trace the individual that did this. Additionally the technology group/firm should be assisting in the proper way to set this up moving forward.

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