There was a time when bullying was easy to identify and defuse. A kid might get shoved as he went through the lunch line or on the playground. A group of girls may say rude and demeaning things as another girl passes in the hall. A teacher can easily step in and put an end to the cruelty.
Social bullying among school-age children – which has been around as long as when the first clique was formed – is no less harmful than verbal and physical bullying.
Today’s cliques and bullying are online, away from the eyes of teachers, administrators, and even parents. That shroud of secrecy can embolden tormentors and give them the confidence to be even meaner. It can also facilitate gang bullying, where groups of kids gang up on one kid online.
In private messaging or in social media, cyberbullying is a dreadful phenomenon that schools are addressing – some, better than others. In a profile in the New York Times in 2010, a principal recounted a painful cyberbullying incident for one student new to the school. The boy had become the target of mean-spirited attacks on Facebook that often included racial and sexual slurs.
The bullying became so prevalent at this New Jersey middle school that the boy was even subject to ridicule from opposing soccer and basketball teams. The boy started missing school and his grades failed. The principal talked with the victim’s parents, but felt limited in what he could do. The bullying took place off school property and outside school hours. Other than having a stern talk with the perpetrators, he didn’t know what else the school could.
Legal recourse to cyberbullying at schools
Fortunately, over the past few years, nearly every state has enacted some kind of law that gives schools the tools they need to eliminate cyberbullying. New Jersey’s cyberbullying law is considered among the toughest, as it requires schools to investigate cyberbullying complaints within one day of getting a report.
Still, though, even with state laws in place, schools can often feel restricted in their options. After all, in many states, a cell phone can’t be searched by school officials or police without a warrant. And in one case in Beverly Hills, a school actually had to pay a bully’s family more than $100,000 as a result of a lawsuit judgement. The girl’s family successfully sued the school after administrators suspended the girl for posting a bullying video on Youtube.
Beyond calling in the authorities, there are steps you can take, though. Below are five ways to create a culture of inclusion and safety and minimize the cyberbullying that goes on in your school:
1. Monitor your social media closely.
Your biggest limitation here may be time. You’re probably already understaffed and you likely don’t have the staff or resources to spend hours investigating every cyberbullying complaint that comes into the office. There is one report by one administrator that roughly 75 percent of his school’s guidance counselors’ time is spent dealing with social media ‘issues’ among students.
Obviously you cannot monitor every students’ social media account, but be sure you’re monitoring your school’s own social media. Be on the lookout for bullying comments, and be sure to use best practices to handle any and all negative social media comments.
Your district communications lead should implement a social media monitoring program as part of a school social media program and larger communications plan.
2. Let your students know that you have their backs.
Cyberbullying is often so prevalent because students believe it’s consequence-free. They think that if adults can’t see it, there won’t be any punishment. Let them know that simply isn’t the case in your school and that administrators will take action to investigate any report.
In New Jersey, there’s no guarantee that the school will be able to punish bullies under the new law. However, there is a firm guarantee that the bullying will be investigated to the best of the school’s capabilities and that the school will have the support of law enforcement in the investigation.
That sends a strong message to students that all reports will be taken seriously. Every year, address cyberbullying during one of your group assemblies. Explain the reporting procedure and what steps the school will take. Also communicate that to parents via email, take-home forms, and on social media. That way, everyone involved knows what to do and who to contact should cyberbullying occur.
3. Train teachers to recognize the signs.
When the actual bullying takes place online and off school property, there may not be be obvious signs that bullying is taking place. The bullying victim may want to retreat into a corner and hide, making it hard for teachers and administrators to know if anything is wrong.
However, there are things your teachers can look for. A change in attitude or a reticence to be involved in group discussions could be a sign that there are problems. Changing friendship groups and dynamics can be another sign. A big cue can be a shuffling of seating arrangements at lunch time.
Train your teachers to look for these subtle signs and to not be afraid to start the conversation if they feel a student might be dealing with bullying off of school property. The may want to be on high alert on Mondays. That’s because much of the cyberbullying can happen over the weekend, leading to a kind of climax or high-level of stress when everyone returns to school.
The earlier your teachers can notice the problem, the sooner you can step in and find a solution to the problem.
4. Encourage bystanders to say something.
Your best weapons against cyberbullying may be your students. If your kids are like most, they feel a strong pull to go along with the group. If groups of students are piling on one kid online, other students may feel pressured into joining the bullying.
However, what if the tide was turned and the majority of your students took a stand against bullying? Wouldn’t that kind of positive peer pressure make a big difference? Encourage your students to speak up when they see bullying online.
On an encouraging note, a recent CNN news item showed that 71 percent of youth who witnessed cyberbullying intervened. Even a simple Facebook comment like, “Hey, that’s not cool,” can show the bully that their actions aren’t funny and aren’t well received. It can also embolden the victim and give them a lift in spirits. Talk with your students about the importance of having a culture of inclusion and standing up for those who are being picked on.
5. Get parents involved.
Getting peers to get involved requires guidance and support from parents and adults (see school teachers and administrators).
Finally, don’t be afraid to get your kids’ parents involved as quickly as possible. You may not be able to shut down a kid’s Facebook account or take away their phone, but the parents can. Notify them that their child may be involved in a bullying situation so they can take action as quickly as possible.
Of course, some parents may not want to admit that their kid is a bully or may not see the harm in the bullying activity. This is where education is so crucial. You educate parents on helping kids with homeworks, drop-off and pick-up procedures, and a host of other things. Make anti-bullying awareness a part of that annual information and education program with parents.
Cyberbullying at school will likely always be a complex and complicated issue for teachers and administrators. However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Take action to educate your students, parents, and teachers. Together, you can all stop cyberbullying from having a negative impact at your school.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.