“Mentally distraught or scholastically stunted.”
“Brain-dead liberal.” “Silly, social justice warrior.”
It was a parenting fail, they said. They should have taught her to focus on something important, they said.
The list of social media comments Midway High School graduate Miriam McCormick received as a senior in 2016, including those mentioned above, goes on and on. McCormick said she was even told she had no right to push for her school’s mascot name to be changed for girls from Pantherettes to Lady Panthers or Panthers, that her effort was a slap in the face of all the athletes who played as Pantherettes.
But what stung the most was a comment from a faculty member, who often “liked” some of the same malicious comments the now-19-year-old received on social media, she said.
“It’s tradition, why change it? Because a girl wasn’t taught to be strong on her own,” the comment read.
Now, a year and a half later, McCormick’s experience has fueled a statewide effort through the Texas Association of School Boards to protect other students in similar situations.
Since last December, she has been working with the nonprofit to get school districts to adopt policy language that prohibits employees from using electronic communications to harass or abuse a student.
“When hate is our first reaction to different ideas, we lose the ability of proper civil discourse,” McCormick said. “I’ve thought about it a lot. We start separating into bubbles and losing common ground we need to make progress in society.”
Midway Independent School District adopted the policy at Tuesday’s board meeting. The association recently distributed the suggested policy update, but it is unclear how many districts have adopted the change so far, the group’s Policy Service Division director Carolyn Counce wrote in an email to the Tribune-Herald.
The district initially signed off on changing the mascot name in summer 2016, but reversed course after outspoken pushback.
McCormick followed proper channels to have the girls’ mascot changed from Pantherettes to Panthers, but the move triggered an “immense amount of input and opinion from passionate alumni and concerned taxpayers,” Midway ISD spokesperson Traci Marlin said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, Miss McCormick experienced intense negativity enabled by social media.
“It was already in the employee handbook and a district expectation for employees to abide by professional behavior online, but one employee learned a lesson about overstepping advocacy efforts in the fray of social media. (Superintendent) Dr. (George) Kazanas worked with the McCormick family and employee to appropriately address the situation.”
The new policy language added to the district’s Employee Standards of Conduct on Tuesday clarifies expectations already in place for the district, Marlin said.
Out of respect for the employee, and the fact the issue happened a year ago, the McCormick family asked the Tribune-Herald not to state the name of the employee, but did provide documentation of the comment. The family said the district has provided an adequate apology since the backlash.
“It insulted my parents, and all the teachers and ministers who helped develop my character, because it suggested I identified so much on outside labels that I was an incomplete being without a mascot, which was hurtful and quite absurd,” McCormick said. “Then in liking the other comments, (the employee) encouraged this caustic and hostile environment, which was about me, and it was not healthy.”
At the time, McCormick felt nothing in the employee handbook explicitly prohibited faculty and staff from using social media in a way that could hurt a student’s learning, mental health or safety, she said.
“There’s student-to-student cyber bullying rules. There’s student-to-teacher cyber bullying rules. But there were no teacher-to-student, which you wouldn’t think you would need it, but it turns out you do,” McCormick said. “Whenever I found that loophole, I figured it should be filled for any students who come after me and go through same experience, but don’t have the same support system I do.”
McCormick was able to cope with the backlash against her and lean on her family and people close to her at church and at work, she said. Still, she worried about someone in a similar situation who might not have as much support or who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues, she said.
The anonymity of online comments added to her worries when she was in public, McCormick said.
“I was mostly harassed online, which means not all of these people have faces, but they were definitely are people out there in my community. They could be anyone. They could live down the street from me,” McCormick said. “So when I would go to a football game, there were all these community members. They could be alumni. They could be some of the people who bullied and harassed me online.
“It’s not a fun experience, not knowing whether this middle-aged person, when I’m walking down the stairs when they get up — are they someone coming to confront me?”
Ultimately, the best way to heal meant finding her voice again, Miriam McCormick’s mother, Sarah McCormick, said. Her daughter started fighting for change by writing out what she had been through and collecting screenshots of the comments, Sarah McCormick said.
The family let some time pass before reaching out to an attorney who could advise them on ways to accomplish the change.
David Schleicher, an attorney with a background in government relations and a former Waco Independent School District school board member, helped the family figure out the route most likely to protect as many students as possible, he wrote in an email to the Tribune-Herald.
They settled on pushing the policy change with the Texas Association of School Boards.
“It’s a win for all involved. Students are protected. Educators and staff have clearer direction,” Schleicher wrote. “As much bad news as there is in the world these days, getting to know ‘Miriam the Brave’ increased my hope the future will be better.”
McCormick is now studying business at Baylor University, and she is more sensitive to the need for civility online, she said.
Next time a school employee somewhere in Texas crosses a line with a student on social media, McCormick’s push for clearer cyber bulling policies will allow a principal or administrator to put an early stop to it, Schleicher said.
“If clearer policy language is what it takes to prevent inappropriate behavior, we are fully supportive of any prevention measures that can be put in place,” Marlin said.