What Schools can do to Curb Cyberbullying
Brian D. Hadfield, Middle School Teacher, Chippewa Valley Public Schools, Michigan
Pushing a kid on the playground, shoving another student into a locker and heckling a classmate at the bus stop – these were once classic examples of bullying.
In a world increasingly driven by social media, however, it is becoming more common to find cases of bullying involving social networks and mobile technology.
About 95% of Americans ages 12 to 17 years old are Internet users, according to a November 2011 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. About 80% of those youngsters use social media sites.
Along with the perks that this “connectedness” brings comes a new medium for bullying. Cyberbullying has redefined harassment between young people.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”
Where a playground confrontation generally can be handled easily enough by school administrators, a case of cyberbullying is more complicated to resolve. In order to curb the problem, schools should strategically define their policies and plans while carefully considering the applicable laws.
Schools typically have an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that outlines appropriate online behavior and acceptable use of school technology. This policy can serve as a legal contract when signed by students and parents. Included in this policy should be a provision that will address abusive or dangerous online conduct that threatens the safety of students, teachers or the school itself.
The nature of cyberbullying can leave schools with their hands tied if the inappropriate behaviors occur on computers, cell phones or other mobile devices used off school grounds. In such cases, the law could work against a school district if the AUP only defines acceptable use of the “school’s technology.” With the appropriate provisions in place, however, the signed contract can give a school the authority to act regardless of whether the harassment occurred on or off campus.
To incorporate such safeguards, the school administration should plan carefully and consult with a range of experts. An audit of the school’s technology practices could be conducted to assess current use, as well as to review short- and long-term plans for future use. This should involve the opinions and recommendations of experts in the school, ranging from technology council members and administrators to parent and student representatives.
Once an overview is in hand, the details of the AUP can be constructed to clearly convey expectations for all aspects of Internet and computer usage. This likely will include a comprehensive account of the disciplinary actions that can be taken should the rules be broken.
The details of the contract and its provisions can be reviewed by a school board attorney or by a lawyer specializing in cyberbullying issues.
After establishing the legal steps, schools must ensure that students, parents and staff members understand what types of behaviors constitute cyberbullying.
With so many resources for sending text and images at their fingertips, youngsters are capable of many forms and varying degrees of harassment. From the comfort of their own room, they can do anything from sending suggestive texts to publishing photos of a classmate that have been manipulated electronically to include inappropriate images.
Students need to be aware that what they might consider to be harmless fun can be punishable by law. Schools can offer cyberbullying awareness programs that include grade-appropriate curriculum and activities. Organizations such as CyberSmart can provide educators with online workshops and free lessons to be used in the classroom.
Educating students about cyberbullying and its potential ramifications is perhaps the most important proactive step a school can take.
Although significantly more challenging than a playground scuffle, cyberbullying can be handled with authority if there is careful planning and proper pre-emptive measures.