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From School Board News
John receives a text message on his cell phone warning him to "watch his back" while he is at school tomorrow. Jane discovers that classmates have created a "Hate Jane" website where people are able to post derogatory comments about her. Someone steals Mary's computer password and e-mails a break-up letter to her boyfriend — signed, of course, in the name of Mary herself.
For the targets of such acts, the psychological harm which is generated is just as real as that which would have been experienced when bullying occurs at school. But cyberbullying adds some new and painful twists: For one, it is easier to mask acts of bullying in anonymity, as would be accomplished in the case of an unsigned post to an online social network. And, unlike the situation as it exists with on-campus bullying, cyberbullying can be directed at a child 24 hours a day and humiliate the victim in a worldwide venue.
Students targeted by cyberbullies could be more likely to skip school, have declining academic performance, and be depressed. Cyberbullying has the potential to leave a child miserable and discourage attending school, possibly resulting in declining academic performance — or worse: In Vermont a few years ago, a 13-year-old boy hanged himself after enduring months of cyberbullying from class-mates.
Cyberbullying is far more common than most educators realize. Some studies report that anywhere from 20% to 40% of middle- and high-school students have been the victim of at least one instance of online bullying. Such statistics are catching the attention of school officials: The Pasco County, Florida, school system recently updated its student code of conduct to clarify that bullying by electronic means — "interactive and digital technologies or cell phones" — will be treated as seriously as the traditional school-yard variety. Yet, educators in Pasco County — as well as ones who are located elsewhere across the nation — are pondering just how far they can go to police students' online activity.
"This is an emerging issue," said Thomas Mutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. "The well-being of students is at stake, but school districts are not the arbitrators of the Internet." Legal experts tend to agree that school officials are on solid ground to respond when a clear link can be shown between the bullying and school. For example, a student who uses a camera-equipped cell phone to take a picture of an undressed student in a school locker room and send it to fellow students — or who uses a school computer to send mean-spirited e-mails to other students — can be disciplined for on-campus misbehavior.
As they do at school, students use these sites to build their social status by cozying up to those who are higher up on the social ladder than they are themselves — and trying to denigrate or exclude others.
With no clear connection to school, some officials opt to take no action, out of fear of overstepping their authority and running into free-speech issues. At most, they might confront students and inform parents to give them an opportunity to resolve the issue.
When off-campus activity appears to be criminal or to raise the prospect of violence, school officials are more likely to respond. In Easthampton, New York, for example, an 18-year-old student was charged this spring with harassment and second-degree breach of the peace for allegedly threatening local students on MySpace.
The legal uncertainties surrounding cyberbullying does not mean school officials are powerless to intervene, said Lizette Alexander, Pasco County's director of student services. It is certainly within the purview of school officials to inform parents about a problem and offer mediation to resolve it.
"We are not policing the Internet," she said. "But when things come to our attention that adversely impact the learning climate or sense of security for any of our students, we take that very seriously."
Michael Dickerson, spokesperson for the Henrico County, Virginia, school system, recommends that school administrators closely monitor students' use of school computers, as well as educate students about the damaging impact of cyberbullying. His district recently included cyberbullying as a violation of the student code of conduct.
Parry Aftab, a New York-based attorney and consultant who has set up a website on cyberbullying, said school officials should be far more proactive in stopping cyber-bullying. She suggests an anti-cyberbultying campaign that emphasizes the message that off-campus behavior can lead to escalating conflict that spills over into the schools. She also advises officials to ask parents and students to sign a contract in which they are agreeing not to engage in cyberbullying. "You must address this as a school violence issue," Aftab said. If you approach parents with the message that "you're trying to protect their child," they will cooperate.
School-Based Programs to Reduce Bullying and Victimization
- Farrington, D. P. & Ttofi, M. M. School-Based Programs to Reduce Bullying and
Reflection Exercise #11