Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A student at a local middle school is being mercilessly bullied by another student in her class. The harassment is constant – occurring on a daily basis – and extremely public in that most of the other students in the class are directly aware of what is happening. The harassment is clearly having a serious emotional impact on the victim who at this juncture doesn’t want to go to school due to a mixture of fear and embarrassment. At first glance, this scenario cries out for intervention by school staff and administration. There is, however, a twist: Most of the bullying is not occurring at the school. In fact, much of the behavior does not even involve direct physical contact between the bully and victim. Instead, the bully uses electronic communications and media to harass, taunt, and humiliate the victim.
Cyberbullying – which involves the use of electronic media and communications (such as cellphones, texting, email, instant messaging, and website posting on sites like MySpace and Facebook) by a bully to harass a victim – is an age old problem for school administratorsthat is wrapped in a modern disguise. School bullies now use modern, electronic media to engage in direct harassment, instigate and arrange fights, impersonate other students in order to ruin reputations, and embarrass others by making their private communications public. This type of cyberbullying is probably the foremost online concern of youth today.
For an educator, the million dollar question is this: What is the school’s role when it comes to the prevention, detection, and intervention of cyberbullying?
Ultimately, it is the school’s responsibility to keep and make students feel safe. Any failure in that regard is disruptive to the entire educational process. If the relationship between the cyberbully and victim derives from the school setting and/or affects the educational process, then the matter becomes a problem for the school administrator regardless of whether or not the electronic communications and posting are initially made on school grounds. Furthermore, it should be noted that when cyberbullying is occurs, there is typically at least some face-to-face bullying that is also occurring between the bully and victim. The school must use its authority to address the problem.
That being said, unique obstacles and complications exist when it comes to cyberbullying. Often, unless the cyberbullying is reported by someone, it is difficult to detect and investigate. Many of the victims are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation. Others are afraid that their situations may not be believed or will be “trivialized.” Other complications involve the appropriate level and method of school discipline. How should cyberbullies be punished? Does the school have the jurisdiction to punish for posting done solely off school grounds? Can schools take away a student’s personal electronic device? Can students be banned from use of school computers or the internet? How does the school address posts that are made anonymously from electronic accounts that do not identify the poster?
Many of these issues can be properly addressed if the school institutes a serious and well-defined policy and protocol regarding cyberbullying that is clearly and seriously communicated to all students. Such a policy would include: (1) Clear expectations and regulations regarding internet and cellphone use by students; (2) Student and parent education regarding cybersafety (as well as proper parental monitoring of their child’s on-line activities); (3) A clear policy and mechanism for reporting by students and others of incidents of cyberbullying; and (4) A well-defined set of consequences for perpetrators of cyberbullying. The school must vigorously stand behind its own policies – appropriate and swift investigation and action must be taken when violations are reported. Finally, such a multi-faceted program will require effort and cooperation between school personnel, students, and parents.
NEXT TIME: Setting appropriate consequences for cyberbullying. Should consequences be punitive? Should an educational component/consequence be used? What can schools learn from cyberbullying incidents to prevent future bullying?


Ybarra, M.L., & Mitchell, K.J. (2004). Youth engaging in online harrassment: Assosciations with caregiver-child relationships, Internet use, and personal characteristics. Journal of Adolescence. 27, 319-336.