Ethical Educator

A Ticking Clock on Attire
 School Administrator, October 2020

Scenario: The assistant middle school principal is shown by a former student a TikTok video of a high school freshman doing a sexual dance in revealing attire, apparently a regular occurrence on her social media. He knew the student had an unstable home life during the previous several years but doesn’t know the details. The assistant principal wrestles with showing the video to the student’s high school counselor, thinking the student may need help. 

Maggie Lopez: 

The assistant principal needs to share the information with his principal and let him/her know he will be informing the counselor/administration at the high school. This is the best way to help this student who is a minor engaging in sexually explicit behaviors on social media that have now become part of his/her digital footprint. 

Does the student even realize this? Could this be connected to a background of potential child abuse or endangerment? Is this minor doing this of his/her own accord or is she/he being encouraged by others? These are just a few of the questions which arise in contemplating this scenario, which is further complicated by the fact that the student has been identified as at risk in the past. 

There should be district policy/protocol for the high school staff to access regarding digital guidelines when they address the behavior first with the student. The fact there was speculation by the school for several years that the student has an unstable home life will need to be taken into account when deciding how to inform the family. This behavior is akin to sexting as it is of a sexual nature acted out online, in this case by a minor. The fact this has been ongoing for several TikTok sessions makes one wonder whether the student is seeking attention or help? Boundaries have been crossed for appropriate use of social media, and the behavior exhibited indicates potentially deeper underlying issues that should be addressed. It is apparently not a one-time occurrence and for a minor whether at risk or not, it is a red flag. 

The school’s administration and the counselor may have caught the student in time to redirect what appear to be self-destructive behaviors that could permanently impact the student in a negative way. 

MaryEllen Elia:

It’s the responsibility of every education leader to concern themselves with the mental health and well-being of all students within the organization, not just within their building’s four walls. For this reason, the assistant middle school principal cannot just let this go. Too often kids don’t fully understand the indelible nature of what gets posted online and how this can ultimately follow (and haunt) them into adulthood. 

The right thing would be to contact the high school guidance counselor and explain the situation and potential complicating factors. The high school counselor hopefully has an existing relationship or rapport with this student, but if not, this is an opportunity to begin one. 

Because the student is a freshman, this could be a chance for the student to make a meaningful relationship with a trusted adult within the school that will offer stability and guidance for the next several years. The counselor also would be wise to reach out to the middle school guidance counselor to obtain any relevant information that might help him/her better understand the student. Because the objective is not judgment, shame or punishment, the counselor must connect with the student out of genuine care and concern and approach the situation supportively.

Max McGee:

Pick up the phone! Regardless of what the assistant principal knows about the girl’s home life, he has the responsibility to let her high school counselor know about the video. He should thank his former student and remind the individual that once a video, image or message is put on the internet, it is there forever and can result in future serious consequences.  

The counselor will need to talk to the freshman girl and determine if there is an abusive situation at home or if she is being harassed about the video at school. He needs to advise her to take it down immediately and share compelling evidence with her (e.g., “Mom Goes Undercover")  about what could be the immediate and future consequences, including attracting sexual predators.  

Shelley Berman:

Safety first. The assistant principal’s responsibility is to protect students from harm. Although the student no longer attends his school, once made aware of the danger he should contact the student’s current principal and guidance counselor. In addition, despite the instability of the student’s home life, in collaboration with the counselor he needs to notify the parent/guardian about the videos.  

Young people often don’t realize the danger of posting explicit videos or other material online. Although the student may regard the dancing as innocent fun, the video now is being publicly viewed by strangers. It also is available to predators who could take advantage of the student in multiple ways. The student’s unstable home life creates even greater vulnerability to ill-intentioned solicitations. The video also has implications for the student’s reputation at school. Although the video was posted by a young teenager, it could haunt the student for years to come, affecting college, career and personal opportunities. 

While this video may not constitute sexting, such dangerous behavior could be just around the corner. The student may be angered by the assistant principal’s intrusion into something that was unrelated to school. However, his timely intervention may enable the student to access counseling or mental health assistance and learn to make better judgments about protecting oneself from both physical and reputational harm. It’s also an opportunity to collaborate with the student’s family to find ways to support the student at home. The student could be one injudicious or self-destructive decision away from becoming a headline in the press or social media. Preventing such an event is well worth the assistant principal’s time and proactive concern.


The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.