A group of nursing students at Johnson County Community College were kicked out of school for posing with a human placenta and posting the photos on Facebook. (It seems the esteemed “in-mirror club shot” for Facebook has effectively been replaced.) According to court documents, the students were visiting a medical centre with their class in November when they asked their teacher if they could take photos with a placenta. The teacher “implied consent” and the girls snapped away, posting the pictures on a least one Facebook page. A few hours later, an instructor requested that the photos be taken down, and the students were informed that they were being “dismissed.” They responded by filing suit against the school.
This story has gone viral south of the border, inciting heated debate about the freedom to post the miscellaneous online and the appropriateness of school sanctions for non-academic conduct. The issue is not foreign to us here in Canada, as the University of Calgary is currently battling a case concerning its punishment of two students for content they posted on Facebook. The rhetoric is usually the same; either “give me freedom and stay off my page” or “privacy is dead, so act responsibly.”
Regarding this particular case, public opinion seems to have come down hard on the school for enforcing such a severe punishment, and it’s not terribly difficult to see why. The placenta the students (inexplicably) decided to pose with was not attributable to an individual; it was an anonymous placenta, in other words. And they weren’t doing anything exceptionally inappropriate with the organ, just posing and snapping photos (which is curious enough, to say the least). But the situation is complicated for a number of reasons. Firstly, the placenta is an organ involved with reproduction and birth, which makes it a little more personal, sensitive, than a lung, for example. It’s the difference between posing with a heart and posing with a pair of severed testicles; one snapshot will elicit a little more reaction. Secondly, the students are studying to be nurses, a job that demands professionalism and empathy, especially when working with patients whose illnesses have robbed them of dignity. Nonchalance in the presence of blood, scars, feces, vomit, etc. (except when medically necessary) is the mark of appropriate bedside manner. Few patients would feel secure watching their nurse gawk at their oddly coloured growth.
But unless the school has explicit rules about appropriate out of class conduct, it seems beyond its parameters to police students’ Facebook pages. If they indeed did get permission from their instructor, they weren’t technically breaking the rules. But the real onus lies with the students. The infalliability of one’s online presence is a myth, a lesson which, unfortunately, students seem to be learning over and over. Skeletons from school left hidden in your closet (or on your wall, in this case) can be detrimental to your career, and should be purged from your page. That means all those aspiring kindergarten teachers should probably take those “dead baby” jokes off their profiles. It is the student’s responsibility to act professionally, not the school’s obligation to look the other way. Even if your professor doesn’t catch you, don’t leave it to your boss.