Sign up for Chalkbeat New York’s free daily newsletter to keep up with NYC’s public schools.
After a Queens principal threatened to suspend students who followed Instagram accounts with anonymous posts about their classmates — igniting a fierce debate about how to respond to students’ online behavior — the social media pages were removed.
One student was behind the two Instagram accounts, Francis Lewis High School Principal David Marmor said Tuesday afternoon during a meeting of the School Leadership Team.
He said the school was in the process of suspending the student. Marmor and an education department spokesperson declined to say if any of the Instagram account followers faced disciplinary action.
“Over the past few days the entire school community came together to condemn the online bullying and hate found on the two previously highlighted Instagram accounts,” Marmor wrote in a letter posted on the school’s website on Monday. “I am very proud to announce that the account owners have been identified, and BOTH ACCOUNTS ARE GONE!”
A range of “celebratory extracurricular activities” that had been canceled in response to the Instagram accounts — including a senior trip, prom, and an upcoming pep rally — would be allowed to resume, the principal wrote.
Francis Lewis High School is not alone in struggling to manage students’ online behavior, including social media accounts that allow kids to publicly post messages without identifying themselves.
But Marmor’s threat last week to suspend any student who followed two specific Instagram accounts — and withhold recommendation letters for college or work — represented a striking crackdown against students regardless of whether they had posted any harmful or bullying content. The move prompted criticism from civil rights groups and legal experts who said such discipline would violate students’ constitutional right to free speech.
The city’s Education Department stood by the policy, however, signaling to other school leaders that aggressive measures to curb students’ online posts may be tolerated on other campuses. The threat of harsh discipline also won backing from some members of the school community, including Shirley Aubin, president of the school’s parent association, who said the school has long wrestled with social media accounts that serve as platforms for bullying.
“This is not the first time that this situation arose, and I expect more to come, but the way he handled it met our expectations,” she said.
Principal dangles future discipline threats for other Instagram accounts
In his letter last week to the school’s more than 4,000 students, Marmor explicitly named two Instagram accounts that he characterized as “horrifying” and including “graphic and direct threats to specific children with bullying comments.”
One of them included videos of student fights that took place on and off campus, according to school officials and students who viewed them. That account was shut down by Instagram after students complained, according to an Education Department spokesperson.
The second account circulated anonymous posts that included gossip, criticism of the school’s bell schedule, and students revealing their crushes.
But it also amplified more troubling material. Some posts repeatedly bullied specific students. Others included racist language. One identified a student who allegedly had a sexually transmitted infection. A small number of posts targeted Marmor in vulgar or offensive ways.
The student responsible for the account voluntarily shut it down after getting caught, a department spokesperson said. The two accounts each had over 1,000 followers, school officials said.
Marmor indicated that several similar social media accounts were still active, but had far fewer followers. He warned that if they gained traction, he might once again cancel student activities — and he said the school might still discipline students who followed them.
Preston Green, a professor of educational leadership and law at the University of Connecticut, said schools can punish students for speech that disrupts the school’s learning environment or for conduct that occurs on school grounds. But he said suspending kids for following certain Instagram accounts would likely violate their First Amendment rights.
“Mere ‘following’ can’t be sufficient,” he said. “That’s going too far.”
Letter prompts swift action from students
As students streamed out of the campus on Tuesday afternoon, several said they thought the principal had overreacted. Although they acknowledged some of the Instagram posts may have been hurtful or offensive to some of their peers, they said the accounts didn’t seem to be causing major disruptions to the community.
“I don’t think anyone was talking about it that much,” said one sophomore. “Since he sent those emails to everyone, it became more of a well-known thing.” (Chalkbeat is withholding student names because of the threat of discipline.)
The sophomore acknowledged that the principal’s threat was effective. But “just because a problem was fixed doesn’t mean it was a good fix.” Punishing students who had nothing to do with the more hurtful posts by canceling student activities seemed unfair, he said.
Another student said she’d followed the two Instagram accounts and noted that the vast majority of posts weren’t geared toward bullying or naming specific students.
“They were just posting like weird content … weird fantasy stuff,” she said. “I just don’t feel like it was that serious.”
But after Marmor’s letter last week, she said she swiftly unfollowed them.
Another 10th grader also said he unfollowed the accounts after Marmor’s letter last week, partly at the urging of his mother who worried about him losing a recommendation letter for college.
This student thought that his peers should have the right to follow Instagram accounts without fear of reprisal, but the risk didn’t seem worth it. “I don’t really know too much about laws and what [the principal] can do legally,” he said.
A smaller number of students said they were glad the principal responded to the accounts. One said a lot of her peers were angry about canceling student activities. But if students are being bullied online or embarrassed by the posts “then I feel like he has to take some kind of action.” A stricter response, she said, is preferable to no response.
During the School Leadership Team meeting on Tuesday, Marmor acknowledged that most of the posts on the anonymous Instagram page did not name specific students or constitute bullying. But he emphasized that even a small number of posts can have an outsized effect, especially for the students who are targets.
“If you go to the random page and start pursuing it might take a little while to find them,” he said. “But if it’s about you, you know where it is.”
He noted that some of the accounts focus more directly on him — “I’ve got memes of me all over the internet doing horrifying things” — but he insisted that that wasn’t a motivation for the harsh response.
“I don’t care what anybody thinks about what I’m doing,” he said. “In the end, the only thing I care about is the safety and security of the kids in the building.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at email@example.com.