The Lesson of Jessica Barba and Her Bullying Video

The story of the tenth grader suspended for her anti-bullying video outraged Matt Lauer, but what's really outrageous is her lack of basic language skills

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A scene from Jessica Barba's fictional video about a girl who gets bullied that she made as part of a school class project

The latest entry into the American Annals of Absurdity is the story of Jessica Barba, a 15-year-old from Middle Island, New York, who created a fictitious 6-minute YouTube video and a fake Facebook page to tell the imagined story of “Hailey Bennett,” a bullied 12-year-old who commits suicide, to satisfy the requirements of a homework assignment and was rewarded with a five-day suspension from school.

Officials at Longwood High School apparently decided they had to punish the girl for the offense of having “created a substantial disruption to the school,” in the words of the district superintendant, after a local parent saw the video and Facebook page – where Barba had posted vicious comments from imaginary bullies encouraging “Hailey” to kill herself – and, despite the fact that both were labeled as fiction, called the school in great distress.

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“This doesn’t make sense to me,” NBC’s Matt Lauer was moved to comment when he invited Jessica and her parents on the “Today” show this week to share their version of events – and school officials, ultimately, it seems, had to agree: They announced  yesterday that the disciplinary action against Jessica had been rescinded.

“I’m the proudest father in the world,” Jessica’s father, Michael, said.

End of story?

Perhaps it shouldn’t be. After seeing the “Today” show interview, I watched Barba’s video, and came away from it convinced that it did contain cause for outrage, and should, in fact, lead to some meaningful consequences. Not for Barba, but for the adults in her world – from her teachers to school administrators to the members of her local school board, right on up through curriculum planners in the department of education – who conspired to allow this girl, like so very many of her peers, to reach nearly the end of 10th grade without a solid grasp of written English.

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Her efforts to raise awareness are admirable, and the time she put into thinking out and filming her video were considerable, but still: shouldn’t a 15-year-old, ostensibly advanced enough in English to be taking a “persuasive speech” class (as opposed to, say, an old-fashioned class focused on reading and writing) know that “bestfriend” isn’t a word? That a “whole in her heart” makes no sense and that there’s no such thing as a “branned name shirt”?

And while we’re on the subject of academics, is allowing a kid to do something for a homework assignment that she’d probably love to do anyway – make a video, post on Facebook – really such a great idea? In an era of panic over the shrinking skills of our future workforce, and of “results-oriented” education reform, can we afford to waste students’  time on feel-good assignments rather than push them to master the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation?

Lest you think I’m blaming the (former) victim here, let me be clear: Barba’s work clearly reflected the education that she’s been given. Her project was extremely well-intentioned. An argument could, furthermore, be made that she produced a highly effective public service announcement with the communication methods of our times. (And with the level of the communication skills of many adults: notably, the parent who was incapable of reading the many notices labeling Barba’s project as fiction.) The problem is that so much of what has passed for innovation in education in these race-to-the-top years, has, in fact, amounted to a race to the bottom. In the long term, it’ll be students like Barba – ostensibly educated, yet with basic skills that have fallen so far behind those in the moneyed elite – who will pay the price for the shoddy thinking of the educators around her.

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