The Fight Against Cyberbullying
As tales of online cruelty mount, districts are trying a mix of prevention and punishment,incorporating internet safety into curriculum and tightening student conduct codes.
WHAT HAPPENED at Providence High School in Charlotte, NC, this past January showed just how farthe menace of cyberbullying has expanded its reach.It seemed like a standard, if appalling, case of onlinemalice: A student was found to have posted defamatoryinformation about a member of the school on apopular social networking site.
The difference? The defamed in this instance was a teacher. On a Facebook message board, the student had posted a link to a website with the intent of falsely suggesting the targeted teacher was a pedophile.
The activity was uncovered by a parent and brought to the district's attention. "We took it very seriously," says Cynthia Robbins, media relations supervisor for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), which encompasses Providence High. The district took immediate disciplinary action-including pressing charges against the student for misdemeanor cyberstalking. According to Kenny Lynch, a detective with CMS' law enforcement unit, student-on-teacher cyberbullying reports are on the rise. "Up till the past six months, most of the cases I've worked on involving cyberbullying have been student-on-student," Lynch says. "This year, the four or five cyberbullying cases I've had have all involved student-on-teacher. It seems to be a new trend."
Whether a pattern or merely an unfortunate streak, what's not disputed is the direction of the general drift in cyberbullying cases: upward. Once relegated to the playgrounds and back lots, the schoolyard bully now finds prey online. A 2006- 2007 study by i-Safe, a California-based, congressionally funded organization focused on internet safety, breaks down the prevalence of cyberbullying in schools:
- Twenty-five percent of high school students and 21 percent of students in grades 5 to 8 say they know someone who has been cyberbullied.
- Thirty-two percent of high school students and 17 percent of middle schoolers admit to having said mean or hurtful things to another person online.
The most striking statistic is this: 52 percent of high school students say they themselves have been cyberbullied, while the same percentage say they have cyberbullied others.
Teaching Internet Safety
State lawmakers have taken notice of the troubling trends and statistics and as a preventive effort have begun to pass legislation prescribing some form of internet safety education in schools, with some adding language that specifically identifies the need to address cyberbullying. One such state is Virginia, which passed a bill in 2006 that compels districts to incorporate internet safety instruction into their entire curriculum, and requires that the effort to curb cyberbullying must be written into schools' acceptable use policies.
"One thing we have tried to do is get people to understand thatcyberbullying is not something that is sufficiently coveredby a one-day assembly." -Tammy McGraw, Virginia Department of Education
Tammy McGraw, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the Virginia Department of Education, urges educators to exploit teachable moments for addressing online safety. "People are very aware of how important this [effort] is," says McGraw, who is working with the Pokémon Learning League to develop content covering cyberbullying for its series of web-based, animated lessons that supplement classroom instruction. "One thing we have tried to do is get people to understand that cyberbullying is not something that is sufficiently covered by a one-day assembly."
Suzanne Hochenauer, educational technology specialist for the Texas Education Agency, has taken on the task of developing a website that complies with the state's mandate to make available to school districts a list of resources concerning internet safety. The website includes a special section that addresses cyberbullying in detail. Hochenauer stresses it's critical for districts to inform teachers of the risks that kids face online. "Teachers don't know about this," she says. She adds that teachers' fear of technology keeps them unaware of the associated dangers; meanwhile, students' fearlessness toward technology is what places them at risk. In the end, says Hochenauer, it's really about educating everyone involved.
New Codes of Conduct
While the states are responding to cyberbullying by adopting legislation that mixes prevention with punishment, for school districts the issue quickly turns from educating the community about the threat of cyberbullying to crafting a response when an incident actually occurs. Districts are realizing that integrating internet safety education into curriculum isn't enough. They must also address cyberbullying in their conduct and discipline codes.
In 2006, under the direction of Associate Superintendent Prentiss Lea, Community High School District 128 in northeastern Illinois rewrote its athletic, activity, and fine arts codes of conduct to encompass online activity occurring beyond the school network as well as within it. According to Lea, a committee of stakeholders that included parents, teachers, and district leaders worked closely to develop a policy that created specific expectations for students' online behavior. Students participating in extracurricular activities must sign the policy, which states that proof of illegal or inappropriate online behavior-on or off campus-is grounds for disciplinary action. Students may face anything from a meeting with the principal or detention to, if the district has evidence a law has been broken, criminal charges.
In an i-Safe study, 11 percent of highschool students said they had been "cyberstalked"-cyberbullied more than once by the same person.
Though Lea notes that Illinois case law very clearly draws its own lines in disciplining infractions such as cyberbullying and intimidation, the district's incorporation of online behavior into its conduct codes was an effort to make sure students knew "they were being held accountable for their behavior online," he says. He adds that the last thing a district wants to hear after a child has been disciplined is that the student or parent wasn't aware that there were conduct and discipline standards in place.
"Our policy is really about communicating to everyone that there are consequences for one's actions," Lea says. "We worked closely with legal counsel to ensure we stayed within the bounds of the First Amendment. But in rewriting our conduct policy, we were hoping to create more of a dialogue between teachers, students, and parents about what is appropriate behavior online."
Recognizing the everpresence of cyberbullying, Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools revised its student conduct code so that, like District 128's code, it now covers computer use outside the school. "A big problem is that kids are left at home with full access to a computer and no supervision," Detective Lynch says. "There's very little difference between that and giving a 14-yearold the keys to the car and no instruction on how to drive it."
The cyberstalking law under which the Providence High student was charged is relatively new in North Carolina and hasn't been used much. The statute makes it illegal to electronically communicate false statements about indecent conduct or criminal conduct with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.
Lynch explains that all the new digital technologies and the emergence of social networking sites offer bullies an abundance of opportunities to make trouble. MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo pose the greatest risk to students, since they pose the easiest access for would-be cyberbullies. But Lynch adds that all of the new Web 2.0 tools pose a threat. "Kids text-message to bully each other, send e-mails," he says. "I had a female student post another female student's cell phone number on a prostitution website, and she was flooded with calls from men across the country.
"I tell kids, especially girls, you're going to go through more best friends than you can shake a stick at in high school. Don't give out your passwords to anyone."
Lynch also promotes the idea of teaching students accountability, adding, "The first thing I tell them is, 'Anything you put online is public.' I see it as a way to prevent them from getting into any further trouble.
"We certainly don't have a problem with kids getting online and having a group discussion. But the days of simply keeping an online journal are long over."
Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Sanford, FL.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.