What Schools Can Do to Stop It
When Elizabeth Englander planned a workshop to help educators prepare for Massachusetts' new anti-bullying law, she expected a good turnout—but not the overwhelming response she got from districts around the state.
"We thought we'd get perhaps 100 schools and districts sending people," the head of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) says. "Instead, we ended up with more than 800. We added two more sessions, and even that wasn't enough."
Since the January suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Massachusetts, the Bay State has become ground zero for the debate over bullying and schools' responsibilities to monitor, report, and intervene in cyberbullying situations.
Massachusetts isn't alone. Following Prince's sad death and several other high-profile cases, states and school districts are frantically reassessing their anti-bullying initiatives and codifying expectations into new laws and policies.
Current data are still being gathered, but 2007 statistics by the National Crime Prevention Council showed that 43 percent of surveyed middle and high school students said they had experienced some form of cyberbullying in the prior 12 months. The prevalence was highest among students ages 15 and 16—more than half of those teens said that in the prior year they had experienced at least one cyberbullying incident.
While the response has been energetic and there are anecdotal reports of success, it's not yet clear whether educators and lawmakers have found a clear and appropriate role for schools to take on—and whether new policies will result in any widespread lessening of this destructive behavior.
How Cyberbullying Is Different
There's nothing new about bullying in schools. Students aren't necessarily any "meaner" today than in years past. But the popularity and prevalence of cyber-communication among younger students is expanding their opportunities to insult or intimidate one another, says Katherine Cowan, communications director for the National Association of School Psychologists.
"One of the capacities of cyberbullying is that it goes from zero to 60 rapidly—it can go viral very quickly and can live permanently online," Cowan says. "School administrators face the challenge of having to wrap their arms around a dynamic and incredibly complex social system with the students they serve. The Internet makes it that much more complicated."
There are some other differences. Traditional school bullying usually takes place in lightly supervised locations like school hallways and recess areas. Conducted without conversation or physical proximity, cyberbullying takes place outside the field of awareness of many adults, whether it happens during school hours or afternoons and weekends.
In the highly publicized South Hadley case, Prince's family says she was the target of intensive harassment via text messaging and social media websites, as well as face-to-face confrontations on school property. The state district attorney assigned to investigate the case in the wake of Prince's suicide publicly criticized school officials for a lack of responsiveness, while administrators say they learned of the bullying only a week prior to Prince's suicide.
What We Know
As school communities grapple with shaping new laws and regulations designed to curb cyberbullying, education and policy experts do have some concrete recommendations for schools.
First, define cyberbullying clearly, and incorporate expectations into Internet and electronic communications for students and staff.
Involve parents and the wider community as early as possible, whether it's through a task force to review policy, or via workshops to help families understand and respond to how their children are using the Internet and electronic communications.
Teach students to be cyber-savvy. In addition to understanding the risks involved in sharing personal information online, students need to understand how the "tone" of their communications can be perceived much differently than they might have intended.
Finally, report suspected cases of bullying to the supervisors, the parents of all involved students, and, when necessary, law enforcement.
While the steps may seem simple, the reality is invariably complicated and changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
State Laws Vary Widely
While more than 40 states have bullying statutes, the Anti-Defamation League reports that fewer than half of those include provisions for when schools should get involved in so-called electronic communication, which includes text messaging and social websites—all fertile territory for cyberbullying.
But because most of those electronic interactions take place outside the academic day, the role—and responsibilities—of schools is less clear, according to the ADL. And there's little uniformity in the tack taken by the few states that do address cyberbullying, with some excluding schools from the chain of authority, even as others mandate it.
More states are responding with laws that give schools authority to take action against students even when harassment doesn't originate on campus. Idaho and New Jersey are among the states that allow schools to suspend students for electronic harassment. Oregon recently expanded its definition of cyberbullying to include actions that "substantially interfere" with a student's education.
Some states—including Vermont and New York—have gone so far as to criminalize cyberbullying, with enhanced expectations for schools to track, report, and investigate allegations. Following the widely reported suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, the victim of an Internet hoax in which she was bullied and harassed by both her peers and at least one adult, her home state of Missouri upgraded cyberbullying to a felony.
And in Nevada, a new law took effect July 1 that allows criminal charges to be filed against students who are cyberbullies, with the possibility of jail time. The law protects students and school employees from harassment, threats, emotional distress, and harm caused by electronic communications. (A few other states, such as North Carolina, Florida, and Utah, include school employees with students in their cyberbullying policies.)
The new Massachusetts law, approved by the state's legislature in April, mandates that individual school districts have a written plan for dealing with bullying. It also requires school staff to report all suspected incidents, and for principals to follow up with an investigation.
The Mecklenberg Model
Barbara Pellin, assistant superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, says administrators there used a public health model to craft its anti-bullying initiative in 2008, considered one of the more comprehensive in the nation.
Workshops were woven into training for everyone from teachers to cafeteria workers to bus drivers. The latter turned out to be particularly important, after a survey of local students showed the bus ride to and from school was a hot spot for bullying activity.
The district added bullying workshops and online awareness to its classes for parents, which have been well attended, Pellin reports. There's also an anonymous tip line that anyone can use to report suspected bullying.
The Mecklenberg policy includes clear language that cyberbullying is unacceptable in all forms, including harassment that targets staff, as well as students. The district has even brought criminal charges against a student who used a website to defame a teacher.
So far, it seems to be working. The district has partnered with state university researchers to help measure the program's effectiveness and guide the necessary adjustments. Since the 2007-08 academic year, there's been a 30 percent decline in bullying incidents, says Pellin.
An Effective Prevention
A successful anti-bullying strategy would be to integrate it into the district's overall Internet usage policy, Cowan believes. And it should include expectations of how students treat faculty and staff, as well as one another.
"There should be a process of holding kids accountable, and reinforcing positive behavior should be consistent whether you're talking about cyberspace, the playground, or the lunchroom," Cowan says. "We need to be teaching kids that the cyberworld is not an alternative reality. It's as real as their regular classrooms. Schools can play a critical role, in partnership with parents, in teaching kids good Internet skills. Helping them understand the consequences of being hurtful to anybody is part of that process."
While districts deserve credit for addressing the issue with comprehensive written plans on addressing bullying, "policies tend to be disciplinary in nature," Cowan notes. "If you don't balance that with skill and character development that need to go along with it, all you have is a piece of paper."
In addition to keeping watch for the kind of high-profile bullying cases that have recently seized the national spotlight, Cowan urges educators to be attuned to the "low-level hum of harassment" that permeates too many school environments. "Targeting the hum helps to identify a crisis in the making," she insists. "It still boggles my mind that anyone thinks bullying is just kids being kids, and they'll grow out it."
Establishing a clear process for passing along information is essential when it comes to bullying, says MARC's Englander—one that requires informing parents, and contacting law enforcement when it's believed a crime has occurred. Even on a small campus, it's conceivable that a student might tell one teacher about a problem, and that teacher may not share it with other adults who have been told about prior incidents involving the same individuals.
"You can't rely on students to walk up and say, ‘I'm identifying a pattern of behavior for you'—it's too much of a burden to put on children," Englander says. "You don't want to be in a situation where parents and kids are going to different people in the school building and there's no central person in charge."
Englander also believes bullying needs to be treated like a health crisis. She wants a public education campaign akin to the efforts used to reduce teen drunken driving.
"Let's saturate the airwaves," Englander says. "We're training pediatricians to talk to parents about online behavior and bullying, and almost every parent visits a pediatrician with their child every year. But we're not going to solve this one pediatrician at a time."
Englander also believes administrators need more awareness of the issues—she's heard from some local school officials who believe the new law puts unreasonable expectations on educators to keep tabs on student behavior. "I wouldn't say this law is a huge new burden," insists Englander. "But children are dying because of these issues. If we have to put in a little more work, so be it."
What's Next for South Hadley
In the wake of Prince's suicide, the South Hadley district formed an anti-bullying task force. More than 100 people—staff, students, parents, and members of the wider community—participated, says South Hadley superintendent Guy Sayer.
While the district already had policies prohibiting bullying, the international spotlight that shone on South Hadley in the wake of Prince's suicide prompted closer scrutiny.
South Hadley now has a more comprehensive policy that complies with the new state law, Sayer says. But he emphasized that while language can be strengthened, "the real difference we can make is how we interact with kids, and whether we can persuade them to alter their behavior."
Sayer says he's heard from staff members who have mixed feelings about the new policy. "Everybody is glad that we're making a stronger statement about this. But there is apprehension about whether we can respond in ways that will effectively decrease and eliminate bullying. Responsibilities that had traditionally been in the parents' domain—to raise children to act appropriately in school—are being cast onto our shoulders. We're going to do our best, but we really cannot substitute for the role parents play in shaping their children's behavior."
In the meantime, six former students at South Hadley High School have pleaded not guilty to felony charges in connection with Phoebe Prince's death.