Student Advisory Boards Can Inform Bullying Policies and Prevention
Whenever I visit schools to give a cyberbullying assembly or presentation to parents in the community, I am also typically asked to sit down and chat with the administrators about the policies and programs they have in place. Here, they let me know what they have been doing to identify, address, and prevent teen technology misuse, and then detail some of the struggles that they have faced – like how to talk about sexting without sounding irrelevant, how to develop penalties for rule-breaking that can be consistently enforced and supported by all, and how to strategically encourage kindness and peer respect in a compelling way. Apart from sharing with them evolving best practices, I also encourage them to invite students to the table when determining what can and should be done.
Students should always feel that they have a voice at school. This means that their input on school activities, curriculum, teaching styles, field trips, behavioral issues on campus, and other matters is valued and taken into consideration. I strongly believe that the relevant decision makers at each school should regularly meet with student leaders or even consider convening a “Student Advisory Board” comprised of teens who want to get involved in the governance of their school. In this setting, administrators should solicit and take student perspectives into account when figuring out strategies and solutions, and to continually welcome their thoughts and input on these matters.
Students know — better than anyone else — what devices, programs, or sites are being embraced and exploited by their peer group. They can clue you in to the latest popular social media apps that have gained a lot of traction on campus, the newest interactive software being exploited, and the hottest technology tools (along with all of their capabilities). Students can then inform adults about some of the problems they have seen online among their friends – such as cyberbullying, sexting, anonymous threats, and major digital reputation issues. It is crucial to create a non-judgmental and safe environment in which you regularly invite both older and younger student leaders to candidly provide feedback on the tech-related misbehaviors they see and hear about (or even participate in).
Get their “insider” perspective. You will then be better able to determine the comprehensiveness of your policy, its deterrent value among students (if any), how consistently it is enforced, and whether it is respected. Since the majority of students use technology safely and responsibly – and are often afforded certain device privileges on campus – they wouldn’t want that access taken away from them. Therefore, it is in their best interest to help adults in identifying problem areas and getting them resolved so that the misbehavior of one or two students doesn’t ruin it for everyone else.
As an added benefit, students who are involved in reviewing the bullying policies cannot say that they “didn’t know” that what they were doing was wrong, and using students to help define the behaviors (and even possible penalties for breaking the rules) will ensure that the policies are up to date and applicable to contemporary concerns. Plus, if students are a part of policy development, they have a stake in the policies’ successful implementation. When new or revised policies are developed, use students to help get the word out. For example, the Student Advisory Board could go into individual classes for a few minutes to talk about the purpose of new policies, share it over the morning or afternoon announcements, or write about it for the school paper, website, or yearbook. The more you educate students about potential issues and concerns, the more willing they are to take ownership of reasonable policies to prevent the misuse of technology.
It is also a good idea to give youth an opportunity to offer constructive criticism on the wording of your formal rules, the informal and formal penalties tied to various transgressions, and the curricula and related programming you have in place (or are considering). Allow them to articulate their thoughts and suggestions about what they believe will work to change prevailing mentalities across campus, and meaningfully promote a school climate that is all about appropriate and responsible behaviors (at school and online). Truly, they will let you know what they think is “lame” and what they think will actually succeed.
Listen to students. The last thing you want to do is to waste time, effort, and resources on a creative initiative the adults thought was a fantastic idea, but ends up as a complete and utter FAIL. To be honest, that will do more bad than good by reaffirming student suspicion that the school is oblivious and completely out of the loop. Since teens are fully immersed in all things technological and social, it is crucial to enlist their help in determining how best the school can equip the student body with the skills and knowledge to be great digital citizens, how best to pitch responsible online behavior as “cool” and “what we do around here,” and how best to get everyone on board.
Anthony Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District
A new bullying case has emerged from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (New York) which demonstrates that schools could potentially be held liable for monetary damages even in cases where they do take steps to respond to harassment that occurs in school. The point this particular case makes is that a school response needs to be effective to be sufficient.
According to court documents, Anthony Zeno moved to Stissing Mountain High School mid-way through his freshmen year (in 2005). Very early on he was inundated with threats and subject to racial slurs from students at the predominantly white school (Anthony is half-white and half-Latino). When his mother reported the first incident to the school, principal John Francis Howe reportedly told her that: “this is a small town and you don’t want to start burning your bridges.” So the harassment continued. Anthony repeatedly reported incidents to the school and his mother contacted the District superintendent and school board. Nobody at the District level responded. In some cases individual students were warned and even suspended, but the behaviors continued.
The incidents escalated in his sophomore year with students threatening him in the cafeteria and on the football field. “Zeno is dead” and “Zeno will die” was scrawled on the school bathroom walls. In multiple occasions he was threatened with specific references to a lynching. Again, the school responded by suspending the students for individual cases and even moved one of the aggressors to another school. Principal Howe asked staff to keep an eye on Anthony.
Despite the racially motivated nature of the threats, the school’s Title IX compliance officer did not investigate the allegations (she is also responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race). During Anthony’s sophomore year, the school contracted with an individual to provide information to students, staff, and parents on bullying and harassment, but the program did not include any substantive discussion of racial discrimination. In his junior year, the school hired someone to train faculty and staff on racial diversity and stereotypes and to conduct student focus groups and surveys. No actual training was conducted that year however.
The incidents continued into his senior year. Though less frequent, they reportedly became more serious. According to the lawsuit, in one incident “a student called Anthony’s sister a ‘slut’ and threatened to kick Anthony’s ‘black ass.'” There was a fight and one of Anthony’s friends was choked to the point of losing consciousness.
Because of the daily harassment, Anthony struggled with his academic work and fell behind. He didn’t have enough credits to graduate with a full diploma so he settled for an “IEP diploma” which allowed him access to some community colleges but would make him ineligible for the military, trade schools, or more comprehensive post-secondary education. He didn’t think he could endure another year or two at that school.
In July of 2007 Anthony sued the school, alleging discrimination based on his race. He argued that he was denied educational benefits as a result of the racial harassment. The trial began in March of 2010 and a jury found that the School District had violated Anthony’s civil rights under Title VI and awarded him $1.25 million. A subsequent district court ruling reduced that award to $1 million plus attorney’s fees.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with the earlier ruling, agreeing that the school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment that was taking place, even though punishment was meted out after most incidents. The court pointed out that victims “do not have a right to specific remedial measures” (p. 26), but noted that “the sufficiency of a response, however, must be considered” (p. 34). Even though the school District “suspended every student who was identified as harassing Anthony” (p. 33), the behaviors became increasingly severe. As such, the court agreed that the school should have done more.
What educators should take away from this ruling is that once they learn of harassment taking place, they have an obligation to do everything in their power to ensure that it stops. Simply disciplining the student who did the bullying, without following up to make sure that it actually stops and that the person targeted is safe, is not enough. Applying discipline and implementing new programming is only sufficient to the extent that the behaviors desist. Citing Wills v. Brown University the court stated: “[E]vidence of an inadequate response is pertinent to show fault and causation where the plaintiff is claiming that she was harassed or continued to be harassed after the inadequate response.” The jury in Anthony’s case found, and the appellate court agreed, that “the District’s additional remedial actions were little more than halfhearted measures” (p. 38).
Implementing a particular response without concern for its efficacy evidently is not enough to protect a school from a claim of deliberate indifference. Responses to bullying need to be targeted (focusing on the nature of the harassment), comprehensive (long-term recurring programming vs. a one-time brief presentation), and effective (the bullying has to stop or at least be reduced significantly in frequency and seriousness). Due diligence involves more than just applying an immediate response – it demands that the response move behaviors in the desired direction.
Should Cities Have a Cyberbullying Ordinance?
I have received quite a few inquiries in the last several months from local elected officials who are interested in proposing a city or county ordinance to address cyberbullying. An ordinance is basically a law or legal decree passed by local municipalities (usually a city, township, or county) that has the authority of law within the geographical limits of that municipality. Most cities have ordinances that govern parking, prohibit loud noises from vehicles, specify building standards, or require the licensure of pets, for example. If one is found to be in violation of a municipal ordinance, the person is usually fined a relatively small amount of money.
Several cities in my home state of Wisconsin have recently passed ordinances (e.g., Viroqua; Franklin). In addition, a number of cities in Missouri enacted local ordinances prohibiting cyberbullying following the tragic suicide of Megan Meier in 2006. At that time, there appeared to be very few legal (criminal) options to hold someone accountable for cyberbullying or other forms of online harassment. The question to consider is whether a local cyberbullying ordinance is the right way to tackle this problem. Here are my thoughts on this issue.
First, forty-nine states now have bullying laws in place and the vast majority of those (45) include provisions for electronic forms of harassment. The wording in these laws differs significantly from state to state, but all require schools to have policies in place to prohibit bullying and most prescribe school-based sanctions for participating in bullying. So these laws and a long line of court caselaw states that cyberbullying that occurs on school property or that substantially disrupts the school environment is subject to school authority and discipline.
Second, many states (including Montana—the one state without a formal bullying law) already have statewide criminal statutes that address cyberbullying. For example, in Wisconsin, it is a Class B misdemeanor to send an email or other computerized communication: “With intent to frighten, intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass another person…” Moreover, one is subject to a fine of up to $1,000 if they “harass, annoy, or offend another person” using an electronic communication system. Very few law enforcement officers I have communicated with here in Wisconsin have charged a student with violating this statute; however it is slightly more common for the police here (and in other places around the U.S.) to charge a student with disorderly conduct for harassing online behaviors.
So we need to ask ourselves what cyberbullying behaviors or scenarios exist that would not be covered under the above avenues and therefore would require a local ordinance? I suppose if you are in a state that does not have suitable state bullying or harassment (online or otherwise) statutes, then pursuing a local remedy might be necessary. Some of the local officials I have spoken to have indicated that their district attorney was reluctant or unwilling to file formal charges for cyberbullying behaviors and a city ordinance would give local police the ability to go after cyberbullies through the city attorney’s office. I’m not convinced this is the best place to handle these cases, but it does provide an additional lever to pull for someone who continues to engage in problematic online behaviors.
There is one potential benefit to local ordinances that may be specific to Wisconsin (it may apply to other states, I just don’t know). In Wisconsin, any contact that a person 17 years of age or older has with a circuit court (our lower level criminal court) is listed online through the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). Anyone can look others up online through this public record system by name and birth date to see what trouble they have gotten into. When applying for jobs it is easy for hiring managers to look in this database to see whether someone has had a brush with the law. For example, if a high school junior receives an under-age drinking ticket when she is 17 years old, that would be listed on this website. Forever. So if that same student is then issued a citation for misusing a computerized communication system (sends a harassing email to a peer), which is a violation of Wisconsin state law, that too would be listed on the website, seemingly forever. If you are a victim of cyberbullying then maybe you think this is a good thing: the bully gets the punishment he or she deserves. But I think it is unrealistic to assume that anyone, especially teens, will be deterred from cyberbullying others for fear of being arrested and put on this online court system.
That is where a benefit of a local ordinance might be useful. If a city has a municipal ordinance prohibiting online harassment and also has a municipal court, then potentially the infraction would be handled at the local level and therefore the citation would not end up on the online public record. The “bully” would be punished, but it wouldn’t necessarily impact them for the rest of their life like a state violation could.
Look, the bottom line for me in all of this is that I believe that the vast majority of cyberbullying incidents, at least those that occur among school-aged youth, can and should be handled at the local level: by parents working with schools to resolve the situation outside of the formal juvenile justice system. If the harassment is particularly egregious or continues after other attempts have been made to stop it, then perhaps additional formal steps are necessary. But I just don’t think a local ordinance, on balance, will do much to add to the toolkit of suitable response strategies for this problem.
One thing is clear: if states had practical cyberbullying legislation, then local communities would not need to be looking to develop their own legal responses. I spend a lot of time working with legislators to develop cyberbullying laws. As I have mentioned on this blog before, despite my best efforts, my state of Wisconsin has a pretty poor bullying law that doesn’t even mention cyberbullying. I advocate language that emphasizes the school’s recognized authority to discipline students for any behavior that interferes with another student’s ability to feel safe and to learn at school. Specifically, I encourage legislators to adopt the following language:
Schools have the authority and responsibility to apply reasonable and educationally-based discipline, consistent with a pupil’s constitutionally granted privileges, to bullying that: (a) Occurs on, or is delivered to, school property or a school-sponsored activity or event on or off school property; or (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, creates a hostile environment for that pupil or others, or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.
To be sure, this language focuses exclusively on the school’s role in responding to student bullying and cyberbullying. It is also vitally important that parents are involved in disciplining their children when they misuse technology, but that is more difficult to legislate.
Of course the above legislative language wouldn’t address adult behaviors. Those should be handled in civil court (intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment, false light, etc.) or in rare cases criminal court (harassment, stalking, misuse of computerized communications devices). For more information about responding to adult online harassment, see my blog here.
What do you think? Does your city have a cyberbullying ordinance? If you are a police officer or local prosecutor, I would love your opinion on whether you think local regulations are the way to go.
Teens and Technology, School District Policy Issues, 2012-2013
With the beginning of the school year upon us again, I thought it might be valuable to review a very important topic. One of the most important steps a district can take to help protect their students and protect themselves from legal liability is to have a clear and comprehensive policy regarding bullying and harassment, technology, and their intersection: cyberbullying.
Almost every state requires districts to have a comprehensive policy in place, and generally involve one (or more) of the following elements:
1. requirement to add “cyberbullying” or “electronic bullying” to current anti-bullying policies;
2. provision of specific graduated consequences and remedial actions for cyberbullying;
3. provision to allow administrators to take reasonable action when off-campus actions have affected on-campus order;
4. requirement to develop new investigative, reporting and disciplinary procedures in cyberbullying cases;
5. Mandate that schools create and implement prevention programming (such as Internet safety, ethics, etiquette training and curricula).
In our award-winning book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, we fleshed out what we believe are the most important components of an effective school cyberbullying policy. This stemmed from our research into what schools were currently doing, and what was working, and what was not. Apart from the aforementioned elements, we believe that tying bullying/cyberbullying prevention/response to a more holistic initiative to improve school climate will be most promising. Let’s explain further the elements that should comprise these policies, so you can make sure your school has solid footing before you deal with any incidents this year.
First, it is important that the policy clearly defines the behaviors it seeks to proscribe. The more specific the policy is, the more likely it will withstand legal challenges. As William Shepherd, a Statewide Prosecutor in Florida’s Office of the Attorney General cautions, however, “The law or policy should be specific, but behavior changes over time, so you must have the ability to grow with the times.”
Also, we list below several forms of bullying that should be clearly delineated in your policy. Generally speaking, any communication that has been perceived by a student as unwanted, vulgar, obscene, sexually explicit, demeaning, belittling, defaming in nature, or is otherwise disruptive to a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe environment, or causes a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear of bodily injury, should be subject to discipline.
Forms of Bullying
Bullying can occur by one individual or a group of individuals, can be direct or indirect, and can take the following forms:
A. “Physical bullying” – demonstrations of aggression by pushing, kicking, hitting, gesturing, or otherwise invading the physical space of another person in an unwelcome manner. It also includes the unwanted tampering with or destruction of another person’s property.
B. “Verbal bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through insults, teasing, cursing, threatening, or otherwise expressing unkind words toward another person.
C. “Relational bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through exclusion, rejection, and isolation to damage a person’s position and relationship within a social group.
D. “Cyberbullying” – the intentional and repeated harm of others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.
Cyberbullying can result in discipline whether it occurs on or off campus, irrespective of whether it involves an electronic device at school, at home, or at a third-party location, and if it results in a substantial disruption of the school learning environment as defined in this policy.
It is also important to remember that many districts already have policies in place that prohibit various forms of harassment, including harassment based on race or sex. Any behavior that constitutes sexual harassment, for example, should be handled under those provisions, irrespective of whether the behavior is also considered bullying or cyberbullying.
With regard to penalties, any student found to be participating in, contributing to, and/or encouraging acts of cyberbullying and/or harassment towards another student or staff member must be disciplined. Your policy must identify what specific actions will be taken. To determine the severity of the harassment or discrimination, the following may be considered: how the misconduct affected one or more student’s education; the type, frequency, and duration of the misconduct; the number of persons involved; the subject(s) of harassment or discrimination; the situation in which the incident occurred; and other related incidents at the school. Any cyberbullying that has been perceived as a criminal act, such as a threat to one’s personal or physical safety, will be subject to discipline and result in the notification of law enforcement.
Discipline can include a number of different actions. These can include:
• Parental contact
• Behavioral contracts
• Loss of privileges (either in-school or extracurricular)
• Conferences with students, parents, teachers, or administrative staff
• Interventions by school guidance personnel
• School service work or student work detail
• Removal of student from class
• Loss of bus privileges (parents are thus responsible for transportation)
• In-school alternative assignments or intervention programs
• Detentions (before, during, after school, or on Saturday)
• Restorative Justice
• Assignment to alternative program in lieu of suspension days
• Suspension – removal of student from school for up to 10 days
• Assignment to an alternative educational facility
• Expulsion – removal of student from school for remainder of year plus one additional year
We’ve discussed before that it is critical to link specific behaviors with specific disciplinary outcomes so that students know exactly what may happen if they are caught engaging in cyberbullying behaviors. Don’t be afraid to think creatively about alternative sanctions instead of relying on detention or suspension. For example, cyberbullies could be required (based on the grievance) to research and write an essay on the negative affects of cyberbullying. They could also be required to write a formal apology to the aggrieved party or parties. Disciplinary outcomes should be considered and carried out on a case-by-case basis.
We really think that you should be as specific as possible in your policy – make sure you cover harassment and cheating and disrupting the class environment by texting or Facebooking, and talk about threats and explicit pictures and pornography laws and police intervention. Clearly outline the consequences for prohibited behaviors. Get students and parents in on this discussion. Schools will have problems as the school community gets used to these changes, but hopefully the problems will be few and far between and will get better with time.
Students will learn appropriate behaviors and these should—in time—become the norm if a positive school climate is prioritized and established. For example, ten years ago, cell phones were much more of a problem in our college classrooms than they are now. University students, at least in our experience as professors, have gotten better at cell phone etiquette and are not letting the devices distract from learning. Sure, a phone occasionally will go off in class, but usually the student is apologetic and immediately acknowledges the faux pas. Of course middle and high school students are different from those in a university, but we are optimistic that we can work through the same challenges at the secondary school level.
After a policy is created or revised, the school community needs to be educated about it. Students should be informed about the circumstances under which their personal portable electronic devices can be confiscated and searched. They should also be reminded that anything they do on a school-owned device is subject to review and appropriate discipline. This should be explained to students and parents, possibly through assemblies, orientations, community meetings, and messaging strategies (voice mails, memorandums, etc.). Be intentional about conveying these messages, and don’t just assume they know your policy! As a student recently told us:
“I think it’s a good idea that all schools include in their handbook definitions of the types of bullying and sexting as well as the consequences and/ or disciplinary actions, but then perhaps kids should be quizzed on this every school year. Call me an airhead, but I never read the school’s student handbook until my family moved to Florida my junior year of high school. I remember I got in trouble the first day of school because I clearly did not read the dress code part of the student handbook. My old school handed out agendas and handbooks at the beginning of the school year, but no one ever read them. Those things would just get stuffed at the bottom of our lockers. If all schools enforced something as simple as reading the student handbook and made sure students understand what they’re reading, then I think they would be a step closer to educating kids that they can get help if they’re being bullied.
—Anonymous student from Florida
We’ll talk more about policy and school climate in our next blog, so look for that next week!
Guidelines for updating your school’s social networking policy
As a followup to our last blog post, we’d like to share some more guidance to keep in mind as you are updating and refining your school’s policy related to Facebook (and other social networking sites). We hope this is helpful for you. Please remember, though, that you must do a lot more than policy enhancements to be in compliance with the FCC’s new mandates, and to make a meaningful difference in protecting students and avoiding liability issues. Thanks again to Mike Donlin for his excellent summary on these matters!
Preliminary Guidance on the use of Facebook, MySpace and other Social Networking Sites in Schools
– Recognizing the value of social networking in 21st century education,
– Recognizing that social networking is specifically mentioned in Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act and FCC guidance,
– Recognizing that the FCC guidance states specifically that filtering of Facebook, My Space and other social networking sites is not necessarily required, and finally,
– Recognizing that there are potential safety, security and liability issues, the following is preliminary guidance for educators on the use of social networking sites in schools:
1. Check and follow your most current district / school policies and procedures on the use of social networking tools in schools. The policy you may be called by some variation of your district’s Internet Use, Network Use, Internet Access, or Network Access policy. You will also want to check your district’s Internet or network use/access agreement for students and staff.
a. There might be different, separate accounts through the same service, however.
b. Do not use social networking sites which do not come through your district network.
4. Do not share personal information on your professional/educational site.
5. Remember: using a social networking site for educational purposes has the potential for extending your school day beyond the school day and the school walls.
– It also has the potential of exposing students to your own or to others’ personal information, even inadvertently.
6. All rules which apply to your bricks-and-mortar classroom and school apply to the online, social networking environment: bullying, harassment, courtesy, appropriate language, timeliness, etc.
7. Inform and involve school administration
8. Inform and involve parents/guardians as appropriate. However, this also may be problematic:
a. Inviting parents to join/participate would be tantamount to inviting parents to be involved in your classroom every day.
b. The parents would have to know that they should not join using their ‘personal’ sites.
c. Remember: there are students from broken, blended or other non-standard families, as well as some with no-contact orders. The teachers would have to be able to negotiate through all that in some, not too demanding way.
d. This might involve a small number of students, but potential risk and liability issues arise.
9. Do not friend other adults on your educational site.
a. Allow for the possibility of inviting “special guests” for specific educational purposes.
b. For such a professional guest profile-type, establish a vetting process, done by the educator using some sort of rubric.
c. Establish what the expert guest would need to agree to be involved.
d. Consider the involvement of teaching team members, student teachers, specialists, counselors and/or administrators
Public schools, Facebook, and the FCC
Our colleague Mike Donlin and I have been talking out some issues related to public education and teen technology use. He has recently pointed out that there are certain points that the FCC would like schools to know as it relates to their intersection with and use of social networking sites. Specifically, schools need to be very familiar with the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, and that it:
1. Adds statutory language to existing FCC rules for implementing the Children’s Internet Protection Act
2. Has an impact on eRate compliance
3. Requires that school districts’ board policies provide for the education of minors regarding appropriate online behavior including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and regarding cyberbullying awareness and response
4. This requirement is in addition to existing Children’s Internet Protection Act requirements (requiring blocks/filters, and education of staff, students, parents, etc.)
Also, in addition to policy language, it is important to note that the FCC also specifically mentions Facebook and MySpace, as well as addressing other social networking sites. The FCC finds that:
1. Individual pages on Facebook or MySpace might be potentially harmful to minors, but
2. these sites are not “harmful to minors”, per se, and
3. do not fall into a category of websites which must be blocked.
4. Further noting recent work by the Department of Education, the FCC and the DOE suggest that “social networking websites have the potential to support student learning…” (FCC 11-125 Report and Order, p.8)
So, what are the implications of all of this?
1. By July 1, 2012, School Boards will have to create or update current Internet Use policies to include wording that they are teaching Internet safety
2. Districts will have to decide how, who and with what they will implement this new requirement
3. With the comments on Facebook and other social networking sites, and with the inclusion of social networking within required Board policy language, education and training around both appropriate and pedagogical uses of social networking resources will be critical
4. Districts and schools will need background and training on issues, materials, approaches, resources
5. Cyberbullying awareness and response will need to be included within ongoing harassment, intimidation and bullying training and program implementation
6. As the education of minors about appropriate online behavior, digital citizenship, cyberbullying, etc., covers a wide range of issues and topics, it will be very important for prevention-intervention, school safety, counseling, educational technology and content specialists to work closely to create as effective and all-encompassing digital safety education program as possible
So, the major question are as follows: Is your district positioned to address all of these requirements? How specifically are you making this happen? What will you use to educate staff and students? What protocols are currently in place as it relates to prevention, investigation, and response? Are they ideal? I know that many states just wrapped up standardized testing, and are just trying to make it through the end of the school year. These matters, though, will have to be addressed before administrators take a break for the summer.
School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
We’ve been discussing the importance of school climate as it relates to bullying and cyberbullying quite a bit on this blog (see here and here for examples). Well, we just published a whole book on the topic! School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting is now in print and available from the publisher, on Amazon, or many other online bookstores. This is the first book on the topic of cyberbullying and sexting that focuses primarily on what can be done to prevent the behaviors from happening in the first place. We argue that “educators who establish a nurturing and caring classroom and school climate will make great strides in preventing a whole host of problematic behaviors, both at school and online.” The book provides concrete examples of how to do just that.
Here is an excerpt from the Preface:
This book seeks to explain and promote the importance of school climate in preventing teen technology misuse. Most of books and articles in print today simply describe the nature of cyberbullying or sexting (e.g., what it looks like, how much of it is occurring, and among whom). While this is an important first step, we seek to meaningfully build on the knowledge base and more explicitly connect the high-tech behaviors of teens to the school environment.
Much of what you will read is based on information we have learned through our decade-long exploration of the ways teens are using and misusing technology. We have completed seven formal independent studies involving over 12,000 students from over 80 middle and high schools from different regions of the United States. To guide the discussion, this book specifically features information from our most recent study, a random sample of over 4,400 middle and high school students (11 to 18 years old) from one of the largest school districts in the United States. Surveys were administered to students in 2010, and the information gathered represents some of the most recent and comprehensive data on these topics. We will also refer to the work of many others who have labored to better understand how adolescents use, misuse, and abuse these technologies.
In addition to the quantitative data collected, we have also informally spoken to thousands of teens, parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and countless other adults who work directly with youth. Our observations are essentially a reflection of their experiences. During these interactions, we have been fortunate to learn from those on the front lines about what they are dealing with, what is working, and what problems they are running into. The stories we hear are largely consistent with the data we and others have collected that will be presented throughout this text. We also receive numerous emails and phone calls on a weekly basis from educators, mental health professionals, parents, and other youth-serving adults looking for help with specific issues. These conversations help us to understand and consider the problem from a variety of angles and perspectives. All of the stories included in this book are real. In some cases the language has been modified slightly to fix spelling and grammar mistakes and improve readability, but the overall messages have not been changed.
In Chapter 1 we begin the discussion by focusing on the intersection of teens and technology and how the inseparability of adolescents from their high-tech devices affects, and is influenced by, what is going on at school. In Chapter 2, we outline the characteristics of a positive school climate along with some of the beneficial outcomes associated with such an environment.
In Chapter 3 we detail the nature of bullying in the 21st century. In many ways the bullying of today is very similar to the way it was when we were growing up. But technology has enabled would-be bullies to extend their reach, resulting in many significant challenges for educators, parents, and others who are working to resolve relationship problems. Cyberbullying, which we define as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, typically refers to incidents in which students threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle their peers through malicious text messages, web pages, or postings on Facebook or YouTube. It is clear that peer harassment that occurs on school grounds is a significant threat to a positive school climate. That said, online bullying also disrupts the ability of students to feel safe and secure at school. The vast majority of the time, targets of cyberbullying know the person doing the bullying (85 percent of the time in our research), and most of the time the bully is someone from their school. If students regularly post hurtful, embarrassing, or threatening messages to a fellow classmate’s Facebook page, for example, it unquestionably affects that student’s ability to feel comfortable, free, and safe to focus on learning at school.
Chapter 4 describes sexting, which we define as the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video that generally occurs via cell phone (although it can also occur via the Web). Some have described this problem in dismissive ways, calling it this generation’s way of “flirting” or characterizing it as a safer way to experiment sexually and come to terms with one’s own sexuality. While this may be true in part, engaging in sexting can lead to some significant social and legal consequences. We begin to tie everything together in Chapter 5, where we explicitly link school climate to online misbehaviors. Here again we argue that schools with better climates will see fewer cyberbullying, sexting, or other online problems among students. Ancillary benefits for educators who harness the power of a positive climate at school may include better attendance, higher school achievement, and more cooperative attitudes across the student body and among staff. A school with a positive climate is definitely more enjoyable to work and learn in, and can therefore lead to many other beneficial outcomes for students and staff alike. The remaining chapters of the book focus on providing you with strategies to establish and maintain a positive climate (Chapter 6) through peer mentoring and social norming (Chapter 7), assessment (Chapter 8), and appropriate response strategies (Chapter 9).
You can learn more about the book, including a full table of contents and reviews from folks who have read it, on our companion website, www.schoolclimate20.com. You can also like us on Facebook, and follow us on twitter. Let us know what you think!
Bullying Law Summary Fact Sheet Updated
We have just updated one of our most popular resources. You can find our latest bullying law fact sheet here. As you can see, all but 2 states now have bullying laws in place or scheduled to take effect in 2012. Most of these (35) include language about electronic forms of bullying while still relatively few (10) use the term “cyberbullying.” Several states have proposals being discussed for new or updated laws.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am skeptical about the ability of new laws to (by themselves) change behavior. I was talking with a friend last week about cyberbullying and he thought that the solution to the problem was simply to pass strict laws that punish those who bully others. When confronted with an opportunity to bully, the logic goes, a youth will think twice because they will not want to be arrested and punished (fined or even incarcerated). This is a reasonable idea in theory, but the fact is that teens are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of formal punishment. Spend some time reading the deterrence research literature and you will see that formal deterrence just isn’t effective, especially for adolescents. Informal deterrence, however, has shown to be useful. That is, youth are reluctant to get involved in behavior that they feel their parents or good friends would disapprove of. They don’t want to be “punished” by those they care about. Plus, it is a lot more likely that friends or family members will find out about their inappropriate behaviors than the formal justice system. So the bottom line is that educators, parents, and others who work with teens need to consistently condemn all forms of harassment so that youth will pick up the message that bullying is just plain wrong.
All of this is not to say that I do not see value in bullying laws, assuming they are reasonable and implementable. As I have discussed often on this blog, laws should be prescriptive by telling school officials and others (parents, law enforcement, etc.) what they can and should be doing to prevent and respond to bullying. But they should also provide resources so that these mandates can be carried out effectively. (see my analysis of New Jersey’s recently-enacted law for more discussion of this). Passing a law that merely prohibits bullying, or that requires schools to have a policy prohibiting bullying, does little to stop the behaviors if resources (money, professional development, and technical assistance) are not also made available. This is especially true for school officials who are genuinely interested in curtailing the harassment that is impacting their students and school.
Back to the new fact sheet. We also added an additional column to our summary table on the first page which specifies whether the state statutes explicitly allow for the discipline of students for their bullying behaviors that occur off of school property or outside of a school sponsored event. We know that most cyberbullying does occur away from school, and as a result some educators have been reluctant to get involved. A few states have included language in their new statutes which clarifies the school’s responsibility and role when it comes to off-campus incidents (see especially, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey for good examples).
It needs to be pointed out, however, that even without this language in the new laws, current case law certainly does allow schools to reasonably and appropriately discipline students for their off-campus behaviors (such as cyberbullying), if the behaviors result or have a likelihood of resulting in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school. This is the exact language used in many of the new laws because this is the standard that was established in the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines back in 1969. Subsequent Supreme Court and other federal court decisions have applied this standard to a variety of situations, including the online behaviors of students. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently reviewed two cases where students used web sites to denigrate their principals. Even though the court ultimately sided with the students in both cases—saying that their respective schools went too far in disciplining them—the opinion clearly defended the substantial disruption standard that has long governed the actions of educators when confronting problematic student behavior that occurs away from school. Judge Jordon noted in a concurring opinion that: “The issue is whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker, can be applicable to off-campus speech. I believe it can, and no ruling coming out today is to the contrary.” You can read my full analysis of this decision here.
In summary, take the time to review your state’s bullying law and make sure it is useful to you whether you are an educator, parent, or other concerned citizen. Don’t wait until something bad happens to get educated. Upon reviewing your state’s law you may find that it is insufficient or unclear and now is the time to lobby (and educate) your elected officials. Also take the time to review your school policy concerning bullying and harassment. Is it consistent with the law and does it provide you with the tools you need to effectively prevent and respond to bullying? Does it explicitly cover cyberbullying or other forms of bullying that occur away from school? What does it say about those behaviors that occur away from school?
We will continue to update this fact sheet regularly as new laws are proposed and passed so feel free to bookmark the link (http://www.cyberbullying.us/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf) so that you always have the most recent version. And if you are aware of any new proposals or laws in your state that are not included in our fact sheet, please let us know.
Another Well-Meaning, but Unfunded Mandate to Address Bullying
New Jersey’s updated bullying law took effect today amid controversy and confusion. The New York Times recently reported on the law and I have received numerous calls from folks interested in my take on certain provisions. Bullying and cyberbullying legislation has been the topic of much discussion on this blog, and regular readers know that we see a place for evidence-based, fiscally supported state legislation that helps clarify school responsibilities and provides them with the tools to better manage bullying and cyberbullying incidents. We haven’t seen the perfect law yet, and New Jersey’s iteration is not it either.
New Jersey’s law seems to focus much attention on accountability – not on holding the bully accountable, but making sure school officials take certain actions expeditiously. There are a series of requirements in the law that designate a very tight timeline for school actions:
• Principal must investigate incidents within one school day of witnessing or receiving a report of bullying
• Investigation must be completed within ten school days
• Results of the investigation must be sent to superintendent within two school days of completion
• Results must be reported to the board of education at the next scheduled meeting
• Parents need to be informed of investigation within five school days of board notification
• Parents may request a hearing of the board, which must be held within 10 days
The impetus for providing a detailed paper-trail and strict timeline for dealing with each incident likely comes from parents or student targets who feel as though their reports of harassment have been ignored, but holding schools to such a firm schedule will prove challenging. And depending on how each school interprets the definition of “bullying,” staff could quickly become mired in a bureaucracy and be forced to spend more time on paperwork than actually problem solving.
In fact, an interesting aspect of the language in this law is that it explicitly includes single incidents which traditionally would not have been considered bullying: “‘Harassment, intimidation or bullying’ means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents…” Clearly it is important to address all forms of harassment, even one-time incidents, no matter how minor, but to require schools to formally document every single case could easily overwhelm them with paperwork.
The law follows the pattern of other recent state legislation (see our analysis of New Hampshire’s law) in adding language that incorporates off-campus behaviors that substantially disrupt the learning environment at school. This seems to be one of the most controversial aspects of the law even though nothing has really changed with this. For decades the standard has been that any behavior, whether on campus or off, that substantially or materially disrupts the learning environment at school is subject to the school’s authority. This was originally articulated in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 and several subsequent Supreme Court cases have applied this precedent to numerous incidents where schools disciplined students for off-campus speech or behavior. States have simply tried to codify this so that the standard is more widely understood. This law does not require teachers to police the Internet, but it does insist that they respond when reports of cyberbullying that are disruptive to students at school are made. Since most schools are already doing that, the only significant change is the amount of documentation that is required within a very short period of time.
In general, much of the provisions in the law are actually positive, and again most schools are already doing many of the elements included. The major problem is that no money has been allocated to pull any of this together. For example, each school needs to designate an “anti-bullying specialist” and each district needs to name a “bullying coordinator” (contact information for these folks must be listed on the school’s web page). Since no resources have been provided to schools to hire actual specialists, these duties will no doubt fall on staff who may or may not have expertise in bullying prevention and response. Moreover, schools are now required to provide training to staff and volunteers, but information is lacking regarding evidence-based training programs or curricular enhancements. Therefore, many schools will be forced to create an ad-hoc program or pay for someone to provide programming that might not be effective or informed by research. These mandates are coming at time when schools in New Jersey and across the United States are laying off teachers and essential support staff left and right. If New Jersey and other states really wanted to send a strong message that bullying prevention and response is a priority, then they would provide resources for schools to implement these policies and practices effectively. Until then, the new law is only a bunch of words on paper. Complete details of the law are available here.
Confiscating Cell Phones from Students at School
As we begin the new school year and reaquaint ourselves with some of the negatives implications that student-owned electronic devices at school may have, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about teachers and administrators confiscating cell phones due to school policy violations. Many of us know from experience that it may be more of a headache than it is worth because students can be crafty and even defiant at times. Let’s say that your school policy prohibits their display or use, and you see a 9th grader texting under his desk during Geometry. You then stop what you are doing, go up to him, and ask him to give you his phone. He could then do any of the following:
1. Tell you he didn’t know about the policy.
2. Straight up refuse to give you his phone.
3. Tell you that he can’t give you his phone because his parents paid a lot of money for it, and will beat him if he gets it confiscated. (By the way, what do you do with that?)
4. Discreetly switch out the phone he actually uses with an older phone he keeps in his pocket or backpack or desk – and give you that one. You wouldn’t know the difference.
5. Give you the phone but keep the battery. This of course keeps you from searching its contents should you have suspicion of another policy violation (apart from just cell phone display or use) or suspicion of a crime committed, with evidence reasonably believed to exist on the phone.
6. Give you the phone but keep the SIM card. (Justin and I have heard stories where the student has actually swallowed the SIM card to keep it from being confiscated).
7. Give you the phone but not tell you the lock code or password on it. This keeps you from searching the contents as described above.
8. Tell you to take it from them, which could lead to a tug-of-war over the device and physical contact and conflict that we want to avoid at all costs with a student.
Are there any other outcomes that have happened to you when you’ve tried to confiscate?
To note, we’ve written extensively on when you can and cannot SEARCH the contents of phones (see here and the Related Posts, as well as Chapter 9 of our new book. In this blog, I wanted to focus in on confiscation complications. Let us know your thoughts and experiences!