Harlem Shake videos show the dilemma school officials face with discipline related to new technology
By Rossilynne Skena
Published: Monday, March 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Monday, March 11, 2013
What used to happen in high school hallways now plays out on Internet sites like YouTube, and that means the discipline that used to happen in the principal's office often makes headlines.
Last month, officials in the Brownsville School District suspended 13 high school students who shot a video of the popular Harlem Shake dance that school board President R.W. “Rocky” Brashear called “very graphic and very vulgar.” Their video has been viewed more than 13,000 times on YouTube.
The video received attention from local newspapers, television stations and radio disc jockeys. It even grabbed mentions in the New York Daily News, USA Today and Huffington Post.
“What at one time were just local events that might have been reported in the local media are now picked up on the wires or on blogs and go national and sometimes international,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “It's just a changing nature of the interconnected world.”
A simple search for “Harlem Shake high school” on YouTube returns more than 10,000 videos of the dance craze.
Hundreds of students from districts across the nation — from Louisiana to Florida to Michigan — have been punished for their involvement in the Harlem Shake videos, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.
The videos usually feature a person dancing alone, then a group joining in wildly after a change in the song's beat. The videos often involve elaborate costumes and random pelvic thrusts.
“What we used to do in the hallways and the playgrounds is now being played out online,” said S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University. “It probably goes on the World Wide Web and not just on the school bulletin board.”
Young people feel empowered to create their own Internet content, Sundar said. It's a way for students to express themselves and a way to receive validation in the form of Facebook “likes” or YouTube hits, he said.
But dealing with social media and technology in a school setting is “still an emerging area of policy and law,” Buckheit said. Policies may have to change every year or every few months as technology evolves, he said.
Many districts don't have public relations departments, meaning superintendents or business managers may have to devote time to managing media seeking information — some of which may be confidential — about an incident, he said.
What's more, Buckheit said, those officials are not “technology natives” like their students.
In the Brownsville case, the video's content was unacceptable, but it also posed a safety issue, Brashear said. Students were standing atop desks and could have fallen, plus some of the props were dangerous, he said.
“I think we had to do what we had to do the in best interest of the school district,” Brashear said. “If most people saw the full video, it wouldn't be acceptable to them, in my opinion.”
Brashear estimates 90 percent of the fights that happen in school start on Facebook.
“Facebook has become a nightmare to school districts because before it used to be a disagreement in the hall,” he said. “They get at each other at night (online), and then they bring it school.”
Some students have found ways to circumvent safeguards that districts have taken to protect students from Internet dangers.
Last year, Brentwood High School made local headlines when a number of students were suspended for a day after using a free Internet program to access websites the school had blocked.
Brentwood's superintendent did not return a phone message this week seeking comment.
At Norwin School District, secondary students learn about Internet dangers, privacy settings and their “digital footprint” during graduation project meetings, said Michael Choby, assistant high school principal.
“When I was in high school ... stuff happened and it ended,” said 30-year-old Choby. “Now I'm seeing a lot more things that are following kids — they keep tweeting about it or (posting) Facebook statuses.”
Social media is not much different from trends in other generations, according to Cait Lamberton, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.
“People who are 40 and 50 now probably had their own way of rebelling or being unruly when they were in high school,” she said.
Administrators can perceive the Harlem Shake as a threat, but they could use the video as an opportunity for a conversation.
“I think if you just say, ‘This is unacceptable. This breaks policy,' (you're) really missing out on the phenomenon and the educational opportunities it offers,” Lamberton said.
The Harlem Shake craze is just the latest in a stream of what are known as memes — essentially Internet trends — ranging from Gangnam Style videos to Grumpy Cat pictures to “Call Me Maybe” lip-syncing dubs.
Memes spread like wildfire, said Andrew Stephen, assistant professor of business at Pitt, who researches social media and marketing.
A video titled “TOP 10 — BEST HARLEM SHAKE VERSIONS” has garnered more than 30 million clicks.
Searching for Harlem Shake on YouTube returns more than 260,000 results. Soldiers, TV news broadcasters, college students, senior citizens and firefighters have gotten in on the trend.
“I think a lot of (memes) have had to do with taking pop culture and playing with it,” Lamberton said. “It's flexible enough that everybody can project themselves into it, and it becomes entertaining.”
And, she added, there's a secret hope for fame.
Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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