Fight Fire With Fire

School districts are turning the tables against cyberbullies, using technology to flush out and crack down on online harassment.

Fight Fire With Fire

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 policy.

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," Chambers says.

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 abusers' accounts.

"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.