Bullies or Best Friends? The Challenge of Interpreting Interpersonal Relationships

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on September 16, 2014

63308713The other night I found myself in the proximity of a group of guys who were playing a game together. As they played, they talked: about sports and relationships and game strategy and many other topics that you might imagine would come up among a group of young men. From my eavesdropping it seemed that they were all longtime acquaintances. But it was also evident that there were some major power-dynamics at play within this bunch. One or two members dominated the conversation, while a few others sat back and focused their energy on the game rather than the gossip.

From an outsider’s perspective, much of the interpersonal interactions could easily be characterized as bullying. To be clear, there wasn’t any physical bullying going on, but I witnessed a lot of name calling, degradation, humiliation, and exclusion. Curse words were cast like paint in a Jackson Pollock piece. Bad gameplay was harshly criticized and one or another’s masculinity was regularly challenged based on what was said (or not said) and done (or not done). As a social scientist who explores these behaviors empirically on a daily basis, this represented a Petri dish of the real-world manifestations of bullying that I regularly see in my data.

One of the things I noticed was that while no one was immune from attack, certain targets appeared to be favored. One among the group seemed to be persecuted more than any of the others. He had a way about him that seemed to attract ridicule and reproach. He behaved unconventionally (in the game, and, based on what I overheard, also in the ‘real world’), and was clearly lacking in social competence. I also noticed that the older members of this group seemed to be revered to an extent among the younger ones, and therefore their aggressive behaviors were often mimicked by the younger ones in an attempt to fit in (and perhaps also to avoid becoming browbeaten themselves).

But I have a confession to make. The interactions I have just described can be best characterized as participant observation, rather than purely observational because I was a member of this group and they were all adults. In fact, I use the term “young men” very loosely when referring to those assembled because “thirty-something” me was the youngest of the group. The relationships and interchanges portrayed represented the dynamics not among a group of apathetic adolescents playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, but rather those of mostly white-collar academics in my monthly poker game.

It struck me as I contemplated my terrible cards that night that there is not all that much different between the way we treat our best friends and our worst enemies. Taken out of context, an outside observer would surely have believed that bullying was occurring within our group. The behaviors expressed included all of the classic definitional characteristics: there was repeated, apparently intentional harassment (meanness, cruelty, etc.) carried out by those with perceived or actual power (social status; academic reputation?) against targets in a way that allowed for little defense.

Most of the comments were accompanied by laughter by many in the group, including the one being roasted, which may have masked the maliciousness of the malarkey. But we’ve learned through our conversations with teens who bully that a lot of bullying behaviors are done by young people who think they are just joking around. So I actually found myself wondering, after particularly punishing digs, whether some of the comments made that night might have crossed an imperceptible line. And if this boundary is difficult for adults to identify, how can we expect teens to know when something is taken too far? This is especially challenging because oftentimes targets of ridicule do in fact respond with laughter publicly–in an effort to save face–while privately they are really hurt by what was said.

I also reflected on this as it relates to my research. As academics we like to debate the best way to define bullying. Or at least discuss the limitations of defining it in certain ways. If I were to survey my card-playing colleagues about their experiences with peer abuse by asking them, for example, if anyone has ever “said something mean to them” or “made fun of them in front of others” (two indicators included in the commonly-used Olweus bully/victim questionnaire) they would have to say “yes” just based on how they were treated by their friends that night. But is it accurate to say that they were bullied? Often our research approaches don’t allow us to accurately distinguish between good-natured ribbing and malevolent meanness. As I have argued previously, I don’t believe that bullying can be done unintentionally. Even though someone’s feelings can certainly be hurt without intent, bullying by definition is deliberate. That said, whether hurtful actions qualify as bullying by academic standards or not is beside the point. If we are treating someone in ways that make them uncomfortable, humiliated, excluded, or hurt in any possible way, then we should stop. But how do we know if our comments are being received in that light? And when delivered from a distance, as online comments are, determining impact can be extremely difficult, no matter the age of the sender and receiver.

I doubt that most people would be categorize the behaviors as I have described them as bullying. But are we, and research, able to tell the difference?

Empower Bystanders to Improve School Climate

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on July 18, 2014

used under created commons courtesy of Saad FaruqueAs technology has allowed bullies to expand the reach and scope of their torment to an ever broader audience, it has also allowed for increasing numbers of others to see and potentially respond. Cruel posts on Facebook or humiliating pictures sent via a cell phone can be viewed by countless individuals, and the question becomes, what does a teen do when he or she sees such behaviors? In our research, we have found that 42 percent of students had witnessed other people being cyberbullied. We suspect this number is a bit lower than expected due to the wording of the question, which reads as though we were interested in experiences that were synchronous: that is, that they saw the cyberbullying as it was happening. In assemblies at schools, we regularly ask students to indicate by a show of hands if they “have seen cyberbullying.” Usually most of the hands go up.

Since adults cannot be everywhere to witness every adolescent problem (especially those that occur online), we should equip youth with the tools necessary to take some action. In fact it is likely that students will see or hear about these problems before adults. So what should teens do if they see technology being used in a harmful way? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, including the nature of the incident, the relationships involved, their expectation of future harassment or violence, and their interpersonal skills. We certainly do not want to put more youth at risk by pressuring them to actively intervene in situations that might not be safe (e.g., standing up to a physically aggressive bully), but we should give students guidance about what they can do. Minimally, it would be helpful for bystanders to carefully document what happened and then take the details to an adult they trust will respond appropriately. A bystander might also take the target aside to tell her that what happened was not cool and he is there and available to help make the problem go away. A student could also organize her friends to condemn the behavior without doing anything directly.

Sometimes it can be difficult for students to stand up to a bully, especially if the person doing the bullying is a friend. One way to address this concern is to encourage students who are put in this situation to respond in a way that is supportive of their friend but not of the behavior. So if someone is laughing about an embarrassing picture or mean-spirited video, students can subtly express their disapproval by not laughing along. A concerned student could also try to change the subject or encourage the friend who is participating in the hurtful behavior to do something else (like download a new app to their phone or explore a new website that is becoming popular).

No doubt many teens are more than capable of intervening on behalf of the victimized — by helping the target, redirecting the bully, or informing an adult who can respond. The problem is that most students don’t tell adults about their experiences or those of other students. Researchers Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon found that less than 20 percent of students who “saw or heard rumor-spreading, exclusion, harassment based on religion, gender, race and sexual orientation or who witnessed kicking or other physically aggressive acts” told an adult about the experience. Our own research similarly has found that teens are reluctant to tell adults about their experiences with cyberbullying. And whose fault is that? If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is primarily ours. If adults consistently, appropriately, and effectively responded to bullying, cyberbullying, or any other adolescent problem behavior, youth would feel more comfortable coming to us with their concerns.

Encouraging students to stand up for one another can complement broader prevention and response efforts and will result in a better climate at school for a number of reasons. First, it reinforces the mind-set among students that they are all members of the same community where everyone is looking out for one another. How can a school claim to have a positive climate if incidents of harassment are ignored, dismissed, or trivialized by students? Second, there is a greater chance that school personnel will adequately address inappropriate behaviors if students who witness such behaviors are emboldened to take action. If students know that any participation in cyberbullying is likely to be met with disapproval from classmates and, ultimately, potential consequences from school administrators or parents, they will hopefully reconsider their involvement in these behaviors.

Finally, we shouldn’t assume that all students will have the skills necessary to move from “standing by” to “standing up.” Instead, we should provide them with opportunities to learn what to do in specific situations. Educators can also use role-playing to help students develop strategies or bring students together in small groups to brainstorm and talk about these and other appropriate response techniques for a variety of situations, before they arise, which can help empower students to do the right thing when the time comes. They can also take advantage of the skills, experiences, and knowledge of older students to educate the younger ones about these issues. Taking some time to equip students with effective response skills will pay dividends in the long run as educators work to prevent bullying and develop a positive school climate.

Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time

Image credit: Saad Faruque (Flickr – Creative Commons)

Deterring Teen Bullying: Dos and Don’ts

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on February 21, 2014

2013_cyberbullying logo_color_b_SQThere’s been a lot of interest lately in passing new bullying and cyberbullying laws. The pressure to pursue these provisions seems to come from the idea that the threat of harsher penalties will deter teens from bullying others. But will they? Deterrence theory is a very popular philosophy within the criminal justice system, and as such serves as the basis for many policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and “three strikes” laws). The basic premise is simple: humans are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of any behavior and will ultimately act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rational people will therefore be more likely to refrain from deviance when the costs (severe punishment) are increased.

The problem with this perspective is that adolescent brains haven’t yet fully developed to the point where we can assume rationality in the face of unknown or unlikely consequences. Moreover, we often focus too much on formal punishment as a means to compel compliance instead of recognizing other powerful forces that may be even more effective. So what can be done to deter teens from bullying others? Below I offer some basic bullying deterrence dos and don’ts.

Deterrence Don’ts

DON’T increase formal sanctions.  As noted above, a lot of people have been pushing for increased criminal penalties to be leveled against those who participate in bullying. Bills have been passed or proposed in most states (see our summary here) even while legislation has been languishing at the federal level for almost 5 years.  New laws that clarify and support the roles of educators in responding to bullying are helpful, but those that seek to further criminalize are not likely to be effective at preventing the behaviors.

As I have stated before, it is unlikely that new criminal laws will result in more teens being deterred from engaging in bullying. Those who were dissuaded before will still be, but the added threat of increased legal punishment isn’t likely to prevent additional people from participating. The problem is that most teens (and many adults for that matter) simply don’t stop to consider the possible costs prior to participating in a behavior (especially possible criminal consequences). They are usually absorbed in the moment and aren’t thinking about what could happen if they are caught. Plus, the odds are that they won’t be caught (or significantly punished).

DON’T enact zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require school administrators to apply a specific, generally severe sanction (often suspension or even expulsion) to a student who is found to have participated in some proscribed behavior. These policies were most often originally focused on curbing weapon and drug possession at school, but in recent years they have been expanded to include other forms of violence and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, “zero tolerance” is a fine idea in theory. Educators do want to clearly communicate that they have zero tolerance for weapons or drugs or bullying in their schools and that those who violate this standard are certain to be punished. The problem is that these policies, by definition, do not allow educators to use their discretion to handle situations outside the letter of the policy. Bullying is largely a relationship problem, and educators, working with parents, need to use their knowledge of the situation to apply a reasonable sanction that is more uniquely designed to address the particular problem at hand. One-size-fits-all responses frequently fall short in issues involving teens.

DON’T utilize public shaming. Shame is a powerful force that can be used to encourage conformity and compliance. But when misused, it can result in the exact opposite response.  Historically, societies have used shame to induce guilt among those who behave in ways that are counter to societal norms. Shaming can also have the unintended side effect of severing the emotional bond between the person(s) doing the shaming and the one being shamed.

Australian criminologist John Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming: disintegrative (or stigmatizing) and reintegrative. Disintegrative shaming results when society identifies a person as deviant, and figuratively (or even literally) expels that person from the conforming group. Reintegrative shaming occurs when society condemns the behavior, but not the person. In this case we avoid labeling someone “a bully” but instead refer to the specific bullying behaviors that need to stop. It is not the child we are convicting, but their behavior.  Even when done with the best intentions in mind, public shaming is too risky when applied to adolescents whose self-esteem is generally under-developed and fragile.

There have been quite a few recent examples of parents (or educators – see this) publicly shaming their kids to send them (and others) a message about the wrongfulness of their behavior. This approach is misplaced. In my view, parents who publicly shame their kids are doing so primarily because they themselves felt publicly humiliated by the actions of their children and so they feel the need to prove that they are “good” parents by punishing in a public way. While this might seem like a creative method to address the behavior, I believe it could do more harm than good. The importance of the parent-child emotional bond cannot be overstressed, and permanent damage could be done. Praise publicly, punish privately.

Deterrence Dos

DO give students a stake in conformity. The threat of punishment only works if someone has something of value in their life that they would put at risk of losing if punished. For example, earning a bad grade only hurts if a student cares about good grades or is aiming for college or a scholarship. After-school detention is most powerful when a student has something else they really like to do after school that they would miss out on (such as an extra-curricular activity). Taking this a step further, if a man is unemployed, homeless, and broke, the threat of brief incarceration isn’t really enough to stop him from misbehaving. At least in jail he will be given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. As Bob Dylan famously sang, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The best thing we can do for students to deter them from mistreating others is to get them involved in prosocial activities that they really enjoy so that the threat of school sanction or parental punishment holds weight.

Moreover, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to have an effect. For instance, at least as of right now, I have a perfectly clean driving record. I have never been pulled over for any moving violation in over 20 years of driving [knocks on wood]. As much as the threat of receiving a modest monetary fine deters me from speeding, my desire to keep my record unblemished is an even stronger incentive, at least for me.

DO connect and interact. Another reason many people refrain from misbehavior is because they don’t want to disappoint the people in their lives that they care about. Prevention is all about relationships. Inasmuch as many teens are not deterred by the threat of formal punishment, they are dissuaded from participation in behaviors that they know their friends, parents, or other valued adults would frown upon. When teens are emotionally attached or socially bonded to others, they internalize their norms and values and do not want to disappoint them by behaving in a way that is contradictory to those principles.

The concept of virtual supervision demonstrates that kids will behave in ways that are consistent with adults they value and respect, even when those valued others are not directly supervising them. For example, if I really value my relationship with my mom, and I know that she would be disappointed in me if she knew that I bullied someone, then I am less likely to bully others, even in situations where she is not present because I am considering how mom might feel if she found out about my behavior. Of course this only works if I have a really great relationship with mom and don’t want to damage that relationship by disappointing her. So the key is developing strong relationships with kids.

And this powerful effect can also work with others who work with young people (educators, church leaders, and law enforcement officers, to name a few). As an example, one time when I was in high school, I drove my ATV across town to some community event. Several minutes after I got there, one of the local police officers arrived and immediately started chewing me out for driving too fast on the city streets. He was yelling at me, saying that after he saw me he had gone to my house and was waiting for me and was going to give me a speeding ticket!  For the record, I really didn’t think I was going that fast. But nonetheless, I was devastated. I was embarrassed and upset that I had disappointed him – not just because he was a police officer, or that he was threatening to give me a ticket, but because he had been my hockey coach the year prior and I had a great relationship with him. I felt terrible. In the end, he didn’t give me a ticket, but from then on I drove very slowly when navigating the city streets on my ATV.

It was a very powerful experience that others can learn from. Take the time to develop a positive relationship with your kids and students. For decades we have known the power of spending just a bit of regular time with students (e.g., 2 minutes a day for 10 days in a row). Learn their names. Give them high-fives as they come off the bus. Show them that you care – because we know you do. It can make all the difference.

DO develop a positive school climate.  A positive school climate is one that stimulates and encourages respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. Research consistently demonstrates that the more positive the climate of the school is, the fewer problems there are with bullying (and cyberbullying). A sense of collective concern is cultivated where students just seem to look out for each other more and believe that the adults in the school are genuinely there to help.

Since schools with better climates overall have fewer bullying incidents, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges where bullying is something that just doesn’t happen here. If it does, it is addressed and stopped immediately. Students see that and are less inclined to resort to bullying in cases of conflict.

Conclusion

Deterring detrimental behaviors in a society requires more than just passing a new law or cranking up the consequences in existing laws. Considerate understanding of the needs and desires of teens will help us to design an incentive structure that is more likely to be effective. The simple fact is that some teens will not be deterred in their behaviors by the threat of any formal, criminal punishment, no matter how severe it may be. But these same youth could be prevented from bullying others if they have caring relationships with others or are involved in activities that they value.

Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on February 14, 2014

incognito martin dolphins bullyingThe independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today.  I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment.  I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.

The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:

“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”

“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”

The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.

Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues.  One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied.  Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need.  Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond.  And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.

We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion.  We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out.  But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:

Remain calm.  Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.

Cultivate empathy.  Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.

Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive.  Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.

Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.

Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way.  There often is no right way.  People should be allowed to be people.  People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.

What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another.  Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them.  This does not make them soft or weak.  Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.

Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.

The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true.  Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.

If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:

Remain calm.  If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.

Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down.  They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.

Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.

Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them.  Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.

Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).

Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.

Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.

These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them.  Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad.  The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future.  When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance.  So start now – it’s totally worth it.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.

 

Law Enforcement Involvement in Bullying Incidents: Different Rules and Roles

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on January 28, 2014

school_law_enforcementLast week I posted about a situation where a student was suspended for his involvement in a fight in which video evidence showed that he did not participate in a way that warranted the punishment. In fact, from all available evidence, he did exactly the right thing to do: he walked away. Another aspect of that case that generated public scorn was the reported unprofessional treatment that the student received from the police officer assigned to the school. The student was evidently told by the officer that he should “bulk up” as a way to avoid being pushed around in the future. This got me to thinking a bit about the role of law enforcement officers in the schools.

Recent data are hard to come by, but thousands of officers work in schools every day across the United States. They are mostly responsible for the safety and security of the students, staff, and visitors, but often are utilized in a variety of other roles – some of which they are inadequately prepared for. For example, school-based law enforcement officers are occasionally called upon to provide instruction in the classroom (especially using pre-packaged drug or violence prevention curricula) yet they rarely receive formal training on how to teach effectively. Moreover, officers are regularly brought in to investigate or even mediate peer conflict, yet many are not well-trained in dealing with bullying incidents (or even in working with kids generally). Over eighty percent of the school-based officers we surveyed back in 2010 said that they needed more training on how to deal with cyberbullying. So what can cops contribute to the well-being of students and staff at school?

Law Enforcement Presence in Schools: SRO vs. Ad Hoc Model

Schools that have a dedicated school resource officer (SRO) assigned to their building are at an advantage when it comes to dealing with student issues that may implicate law enforcement. These officers generally have more training and experience in dealing with students and schools and their unique issues than their counterparts assigned to traditional patrol functions. Since SROs are in the schools on a continual basis, they are usually more attuned to student interpersonal relationships and the concerns of educators. The best officers know the students personally, and interact with them in a relatable way. As a result, students come to respect the police and better understand that they do more than, say, show up at their house when there is a domestic disturbance or issue them a citation for driving 5 miles-per-hour over the speed limit.

Unfortunately, this model has been disappearing in many schools across the country as both school and municipal budgets have contracted. Historically, SROs were often funded through a combination of money from schools and cities or counties, but when one partner pulls the financial plug, the other rarely has the resources to make up the difference and the position is usually lost. As a result, police are often called to the school only in situations where a significant (and possibly criminal) incident has occurred. Sometimes it is the same officer that responds throughout the school year, but often the call will be directed to whoever is on duty and in the area at the time. Having a consistent contact is important from a procedural standpoint (making sure the officer is aware of the issues related to schools and students), but it also helps to have a familiar face – both from the perspective of the staff and students.

Different Roles and Responsibilities

When it comes to responding to bullying (or any incident, really), school administrators and law enforcement officers play different yet complementing roles. Usually law enforcement is only pulled into the discussion when an incident appears to rise to the level of a violation of criminal law. Assaults or serious substantiated threats of violence would be the most common examples where the police should be brought in. Law enforcement can also assist in investigating incidents. They often have more training in interviewing and evidence collection, and would be able to evaluate the evidence to determine if a crime has been committed.  That said, schools should be careful when including law enforcement officers in an interview because it changes the dynamic considerably. Having an officer stand over the shoulder of the principal while he or she is asking the student about school behaviors is intimidating under any circumstance, but especially so if the officer is not one who is regularly seen in the school.

Technically speaking, when an administrator is investigating an incident, they are doing so as a representative of the school, for possible school discipline. If the police are involved (whether it is a SRO or other officer), the investigation may become one where the focus is on uncovering evidence of a crime for possible criminal punishment. When that happens, the procedural rules change. For instance, when a school official is interviewing a student or searching his or her property, they typically only need a reasonable belief that the student has engaged in, or possesses evidence of, a behavior that violates school policy. Very few constitutional protections are afforded to students in these cases because the school is acting in loco parentis (in place of parents) and not as a government official for the purpose of formal punishment. When the police are involved in investigating a crime, citizens (including minors) do have certain rights.

In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, prior to “custodial interrogations,” law enforcement officers must inform individuals who are suspected of committing a crime that they have specific rights. We’ve all heard this statement before on crime shows: “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…You have the right to an attorney…If you can’t afford one, one will be provided…” etc. This standard also generally applies when officers are interviewing minors in the community, but the question was recently raised in the Kentucky Supreme Court about whether students should be informed of their rights when being questioned by an officer at school, or by a school administrator in the presence of an officer (see also J.D.B. v North Carolina).

The Kentucky Supreme Court re-affirmed the ability of school officials to interview students for the purpose of a possible school sanction without being required to inform them of their rights, but ruled that in circumstances where a police officer is involved and criminal charges are possible, Miranda warnings are required. This deviates from some previous interpretations which basically held that if a law enforcement officer was assisting in a school investigation, the officer was beholden to the rules that applied to school officials. No doubt this issue is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for clarification.

I have also previously written quite a bit on the different issues associated with whether an educator or a law enforcement officer can search the contents of a student cell phone. New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) states that students are protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. In T.L.O., the Supreme Court also made it clear that the standard that law enforcement officers must reach to conduct a search (probable cause that a crime has been committed), is not required of educators. The standard applied to school officials is whether the search is “justified at its inception and reasonable in scope.” Of course there is a bit of subjectivity to this standard and what appears to be reasonable for one person may not be for another. In T.L.O., the Court ruled that for a search of student property to be justified, there must exist: “reasonable grounds for believing that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.”

These are just some of the issues, and as you can probably tell, many of the important questions have not been fully settled. Overall, officers and educators need to use their judgment about situations that might benefit from, or necessitate, law enforcement involvement. As long as there is no immediate threat of harm, it is usually best for school administrators to interview students involved in misbehavior without a law enforcement officer present. Under these circumstances they have a lot more freedom and leeway to gather the necessary information. As soon as the administrator reaches the conclusion that a crime may have been committed, he or she should turn the investigation over to the police. It is recommended that administrators have open lines of communication with local law enforcement officers (and especially SROs) so that both can respond quickly and effectively when confronted with a problem.

Coordinated Community Response

A well-trained and experienced SRO will be an asset in any school, and most administrators would (or at least should) welcome them with open arms. I have seen many amazing SROs work their magic in schools – improving safety and crisis response efforts, yes, but also by enhancing police-community relations and improving the overall culture of the school and broader community. The evidence concerning the effectiveness of SROs varies considerably (see this and this and this, for examples), which isn’t surprising given the diversity of personalities employed in these positions, and the varying ways in which SROs are utilized in schools. As is frequently the case, the conclusion I reach is that more solid research is necessary.

As a criminologist who teaches future cops, I know that the majority of law enforcement officers would approach any assignment with integrity and professionalism. Some are cut out to work in schools, while others are not. The duds need to be pulled out because they are doing more harm than good. From the available evidence, the officer in the video referenced above isn’t a good fit for a school and should be reassigned. If administrators and SROs work together for the common purpose of helping students (along with parents, of course), then great things can happen. There are a lot of ways this can fail, but usually it doesn’t. The high profile anomalies will end up on the nightly news, on YouTube, or in a courtroom. But we shouldn’t base our opinions on these worst cases and instead focus on what can be done to improve the response efforts of all involved.

If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of the issues, check out chapter 10 of our book “Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives” which covers “School Law Enforcement and Cyberbullying.”

Image credit: Gazzette