First Person

Ask an Expert: Handling my daughter's inappropriate online activity

Q. My daughter has taken to spending a lot of time on a site called Also, my husband and I recently banned her from another video chat site called chatroulette because she and her friends were participating in inappropriate conversations with people they did not know.

Bored teenage girls studyingShe became extremely defensive when we confronted her, as a teen might, stating it was only “funny,” and they would “never REALLY do anything.” 

She posts pictures of herself and other pictures she finds online, some pretty, some really bloody and gory and frightening. She doesn’t know I can get into her blog on tumblr, and she doesn’t know I know she is able to go into this site when she is in class supposedly looking up research. She has posted also pictures of herself and her friends drinking.  They are 15.

My daughter considers herself “socially awkward” but she is academically bright – although seems burned out with schoolwork. She has a close small circle of friends who are also high achievers.

Should I meet with her friends’ parents about their behavior? Should I meet with her counselor, regarding how unbelievably easy it is to access these sites on school grounds during class? We have already scheduled therapy to discuss this with our daughter. Although the drinking will be addressed, I am hesitant to share with her where I got the photos because, as guilty as I feel, I think “keeping tabs” on her blog without her knowledge helps me know what is going on.

We do use parental controls, but mostly to limit time on the computer. Should we be doing something else? And, if so, how do we do it?

Talking to other parents

A. You are right to be concerned about the safety of your daughter’s friends, and it will be important for you to share the information you have with their parents. It may be helpful to do this in a meeting.  When you put your heads together, you will likely learn a great deal from each other.

With regard to the school, disclosing your daughter’s online activity at school may help school personnel be more alert to this activity,  but there is little they can do to prevent it.  Of all the inappropriate behavior young people can engage in in school, online activity is probably the most difficult to monitor. Students in the library, or who have laptops, iPhones, and other devices are able to access the entire internet with relative privacy. The only way to truly prohibit access is to take the devices away.

Why this is not an internet problem

In truth, this is not an internet problem.  This problem did not develop at school, nor because of your daughter’s friends, and it did not happen overnight. Rather, your daughter’s online behavior (and drinking)  appears to be  a reflection of  insecurity and immaturity.  She seems to  lack the judgment and self-control skills necessary  to cope with the media she has access to.

If would also appear that her self-image is such that she is willing to engage is risky and potentially compromising behavior is order to prove herself and to impress others. I suspect that deep down,  your daughter may not believe she is  the “good kid” you think she is. Although you might not see it, she probably feels ashamed, and is on some level relieved to have been caught.  After all, she has become alienated from the most important people in her life,  her parents, and this is a lonely place to be for a 15-year-old.

Rebuilding your relationship with your daughter

After your family begins therapy (and I hope you will begin soon), you may want to take the first step in rebuilding your relationship with your daughter.

You can start  by telling her everything you already  know, and how you have come to know it.  She will probably be angry that you have been “keeping tabs” on her online activity. Not all psychologists will agree with this suggestion, but modeling honesty can be a powerful overture to your daughter, and it is almost inevitable that she will find out anyway.

I suggest that you begin by telling her why you have been snooping around her secret world.  Use “I” statements such as, “I love you and I am worried that you are not being safe,”  “I feel angry that you have been dishonest with me,” and “I want to be able to trust you again, but right now it is difficult.”

Let her know that you believe in her and want the best for her, and that it is your job to keep her safe and on track until she is an adult and is able to live independently.  You might also consider letting your daughter know that you will love her no matter what other secrets she may be holding onto, and prepare yourself to hear more.

Your job as her mother is to be strong enough to hear it all, accept your daughter unconditionally, and set firm limits and hold them, even when she says outlandish and provocative things to you, like calling you “abusive.”

It is important to make it clear to her that when you take away the internet and texting,  you are doing so because you love her and need to protect her from herself. The process of re-building trust is an arduous one,  but you are very fortunate to have discovered your daughter’s problem so early.

Please keep me posted on your progress.



First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.