Fight Fire With Fire
School districts are turning the tables against cyberbullies, using technology
to flush out and crack down on online harassment.
ON PATROL StudentWatch Suite accomplishes two tasks: It pinpoints where cyberbullying incidents
are occurring while ensuring compliance with district policy and government regulations.
WHEN MEGAN MEIER HANGED HERSELF
in 2006 after being the brunt of a MySpace prank, followed
by the subsequent trial of the adult who participated in the
13-year-old girl's harassment, cyberbullying took its place in
the eye of a media storm.
All the ensuing attention has translated into increased
concern among parents and a heightened awareness among
educators. While state and federal lawmakers hash out
details of cyberbullying prevention legislation, schools are
working to tackle the problem on a smaller scale.
"When Oprah [Winfrey] does a show [about cyberbullying],
our phones light up," says Susan Hakel, assistant principal of Batavia Middle School in southwestern Ohio.
Besides the greater attention from parents, Hakel says she
has seen a rise in the number of cyberbullying incidents
making it onto school staff's radar, though it's tough to know
if that means there is more harassment actually occurring.
"Is it happening more and more or are we just becoming
more aware of it? I don't know," Hakel says. Either way, cyberbullying
is something the school, which serves grades 5 to 8,
takes very seriously, with compulsory training for
staff and students backed up by a district cyberbullying
But education and policies alone may fall
short in solving this complex problem, internet
safety experts argue. "There's no magic bullet,"
says Bob Kessinger, co-author of Surfing Among
the Cyber Sharks (BookSurge Publishing, 2009),
a parental guide to online safety.
So Batavia Middle School and others are
looking to a host of technology-based security
solutions to round out their arsenal in the battle
against online harassers, from anonymous
reporting to tracking incident resolution. And
they're finding a fortunate irony: The anonymity
provided by the internet that can embolden
cyberbullies to say something online they may
not say in person can be turned against them,
as it allows victims or witnesses to report
harassment without fear of retribution or looking
like a snitch.
The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, introduced
in Congress earlier this year, would make cyberbullying
punishable by fines and up to two years in prison. In
Meier's home state of Missouri, cyberbullying is now a
crime that can result in jail time, fines, or both.
At Batavia Public Schools, for example, students and parents
can click a link on the district's website to submit anonymous
reports about potentially troubling incidents, including cyberbullying.
A toll-free 24-hour telephone hotline also allows
students to report bullying, or to get connected with crisis
intervention support if necessary.
The district uses StudentWatch Suite, a suite of safety and
compliance management software from PublicSchoolWorks, a Cincinnati-based provider.
Once a report is submitted to the system, school officials are
notified of the incident via e-mail.
How Widespread Is It?
MORE THAN 43 PERCENT of teenagers have been the victims of cyberbullying,
according to research from the National Crime Prevention
Council, which defines cyberbullying as using technology--
including the internet and cell phones-- to harass, embarrass, or hurt
someone. However, other studies don't see the harassment as quite
that prevalent-- including a 2007 report by the Pew Internet & American
Life Project that said about one-third of teens
are victims of online harassment.
The reason for the discrepancy is mainly because definitions of cyberbullying
vary, and the line between harassment and "kids being kids" can
be hazy, according to a 2008 report from the Internet Safety Technical
Task Force, a coalition of
more than 20 leading online organizations and businesses. But one fact
remains constant across the research: Cyberbullying and online harassment
are the most common online risks that children face.
"School districts are dealing with this on a daily basis," says internet
safety expert Bob Kessinger. The effects are real: According to the task
force report, many children experience emotional distress from bullying,
and bullied kids are more likely to turn back and harass others online.
For educators, though, one statistic from the task force report is
especially problematic: Of the surveyed teens who said they had been
cyberbullied, only about 10 percent spoke up to their parents about it,
a number that echoes what Assistant Principal Susan Hakel has seen
among her students at Batavia Middle School (OH). "That's a huge
piece," she says, "getting kids to tell."
The software solves another problem for schools: ensuring
compliance with district policies and state and federal
regulations. In Ohio, districts must report instances of cyberbullying
and how they are being handled; StudentWatch
tracks and documents each case through to its resolution.
School staff can run reports to show when, where, and
how harassment is taking place, allowing them to pinpoint
problem areas and prioritize their efforts. Batavia treats
cyberbulles like any other bully: Intervention ranges from counseling to suspension and-- in very serious incidents
or repeated violations-- expulsion.
The district has the right idea, says Linda Criddle, founder
of online safety education company LookBothWays and the author of two books on internet
safety: There must be consequences. "Putting a policy in place
only gets you so far if you don't know what will happen if you
report [an incident]," Criddle says. "You need real procedures."
At Orange Unified School District in Southern California,
applying some real muscle behind the rules has helped bring
down cyberbullying reports to about one a month, according
to Network Systems Manager Andy Harper-- a considerable
feat in a district of 30,000 students. Students learn that
their online activity is monitored and that bad behavior will be
penalized. "Word definitely gets out," Harper says.
Keeping track of so many kids is no small task. Orange USD
started using Total Traffic Control software from California-based Lightspeed Systems about
eight years ago, which meant the district was already somewhat
prepared as cyberbullying began spreading, Harper says.
The security and management software provides filtering,
virus protection, e-mail archiving, and spam and bandwidth
management. It also analyzes internet traffic, web searches,
e-mail, and instant messaging, scanning for suspicious activity
and alerting staff-- usually IT personnel-- through automated
reports when something suspicious pops up. After the activity
is tracked to a specific school and student, the report goes to
the appropriate administrator for follow-up.
Technologies to monitor suspicious internet traffic have
been around for a long time, but were mostly used to look
for adult content, says Rob Chambers, Lightspeed's vice
president of engineer services. As the company realized that
cyberbullying was becoming a problem, it moved to add it to
the targets that its software seeks out. "It's one of the more
popular reports and one that schools very much appreciate,"
The company has also recently partnered with several
school administrative software systems, linking inappropriate
online behavior to student records. The goal is to provide
information about students' online activity to staff, such as
counselors, principals, and teachers, who are working with
students on a daily basis, Chambers says. So by pulling up
a kid's grades and attendance records, an administrator can
also see if there is anything potentially problematic about
the student's internet use, including if the student has either
been the recipient or target of bullying or harassment.
One constant challenge districts face is to stay on top of the
hundreds of thousands of proxy sites that allow students to
elude filters. School staff can update the Lightspeed software
to block new proxy sites and to add keyword triggers.
"There are always going to be technological leaps,"
Kessinger says, citing the effect that the explosion of text
messaging has had on cyberbullying. "Right now it's getting
to critical mass. The good news is that a lot of companies
are looking at what's coming next and how to address that."
Popular social networking sites are also beefing up their
efforts. MySpace is developing age- and identity-verification
technologies, plus a new abuse-reporting mechanism and
web-safety education program. Meanwhile, Facebook has
committed to addressing and resolving complaints of abuse
within 72 hours, and has systems in place to block or disable
"We're in Web 2.0," Kessinger says, noting how the internet's
second generation of information exchange, video sharing, and
social networking has nourished predatory online behavior.
"We're going to Web 3.0. What's that going to look like?"
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This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2009 issue of THE Journal.