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Facebook, Restorative Justice, and a Blurry Placenta
January 4, 2011 - 4:30am

When your editor asks if you plan on "weighing in on the placenta/Facebook story" it gets your attention. Having read "Facebook, a Placenta and a Lawsuit" on Monday, I re-read the article and the comments from Inside Higher Ed readers. Four students in the nursing program at Johnson County Community College were "dismissed" from the program after they posted a photograph of a placenta on at least one Facebook profile.

While posting a photograph of an anonymous patient's placenta on Facebook was clearly a misguided act, I don't think that JCCC officials acted in a restorative manner. According to the official JCCC statement, the students were not expelled, but were temporarily dismissed until August of 2011 at which time they could reapply to their program. Additionally, the students were "asked to participate in a project on medical ethics." However, one of the students was slated to graduate in May of 2011. She would be forced to delay her graduation (pending re-admittance to her program) for an entire year. I don't think that the punishment suits the offense. I've chaired student conduct hearings and acted as a conduct official. Pseudo-suspending 4 students for posting a blurry photo of an anonymous placenta is ridiculous.

It's fairly obvious that the students in question made a colossal error in judgement. However, whatever happened to learning from mistakes? The photo should have never been posted. That much is certain. Unfortunately, the officials involved at JCCC allegedly did not provide adequate due process throughout this situation. It seems to me that the college overreacted in a punitive fashion instead of coming up with a restorative sanction.

I would also like to point out that social media, the method of communication that lead to the dismissal, is once again being portrayed in a negative light. According to JCCC's president, "The fact that this story has so quickly gone viral is evidence itself of how damaging social media can be if not used appropriately." The story seems to have gone viral because the college swung an overly aggressive hammer in the direction of 4 students who made a correctable error.

I wonder if students at JCCC are taught how to use social media sites like Facebook in a manner that is respectful, ethical, and appropriate in terms of patient confidentiality. Posting and sharing all aspects of our daily lives via social media has become an accepted norm. As with most disciplines, students are not always inherently aware of what is and is not right. We have to teach them, not overly punish them when they make mistakes.

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