Password Management Software for Teens
Think about how many times every day you use a password on a phone, computer, social media site, gaming network, or another online account. Passwords are a huge part of our daily lives. Technically, they serve as authentication to identify people as being who they claim to be. Correct authentication is supposed to prevent others from accessing or altering your personal data, so passwords should be kept very secure. Unfortunately, some people put themselves at risk of cyberbullying, identity theft, or other dangers by sharing or exposing their passwords. For instance, we’ve asked hundreds of groups of students if they know any of their friends’ passwords. The majority say ‘yes’ every single time!
I’d chosen to give my Facebook password to one of my “best friends.” She was friends with a girl who I’d been having some bullying problems with. One day my “friend” was at my enemy’s house and decided to get on my Facebook and delete all my pictures. Then they took a picture of this boy that I really liked and put it as my profile picture. They wrote all over my profile so all my friends saw it. It was really stupid, but it hurt me so badly.
~ 15 year-old girl from North Carolina
Maybe you would never share your passwords on purpose. However, you still might reveal them accidentally. A lot of people store and remember their passwords in ways that make it easy for others to find them. One person might leave her passwords on a sticky note next to her computer, or taped under her keyboard. Someone else might save them in a text file or Excel spreadsheet right on his computer’s desktop. Another person might even leave them in a small notebook that she carries around in her backpack or purse, or in the Notes app on her phone. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to notice these sorts of things! And, not only are they easily discoverable, they are also easily lost or deleted.
Even if you’re careful about never putting your passwords in easy-to-find places, and even if you never share them with others, that doesn’t mean they’re completely safe. For example, some websites have security questions that let users retrieve forgotten passwords. If the user answers the questions correctly, he gets an email with a link to reset the password. Common password hint questions include “What is your pet’s name?” or “What is the first car you drove?” I know Justin’s pet’s names, and the first car he drove – and if I can get into his email account, I can consequently access a lot of his other information, too. And that might allow me to change passwords on his other online accounts— simply by having access to his email and knowing a few basic facts about him. Of course, I could also impersonate him, lock him out of his profiles, delete his carefully curated images and posts, or even do something criminal via his account. The possibilities are endless, and this can (and has) happened to many people.
Plus, some individuals tend to use the same password for multiple accounts— school and personal email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Skype, eBay, PayPal, and more. That makes it easy to remember, but it also means that if someone finds out the password to a single account, he can then get into all the other ones, too. As such, it’s wise to have a different password for every site or account you use, and to keep track of all your passwords in a way that’s safe and secure, yet still convenient. We would therefore like to recommend some software solutions that will help you keep a tight leash on your private information. We’ve evaluated each of these password managers, and list out with the pros and cons below. Whichever method you use to keep track of your passwords, just make sure you figure out a solution that doesn’t leave you vulnerable to cyberbullying or other online risks.
How convenient would it be to only have to remember one master password that allowed you to safely use all of your favorite apps and sites without having to also remember the unique account information for all of them? LastPass allows you to securely browse the web, and log into all your favorite sites by only having to remember one master password, and the best part is the automatic form fill feature. This allows you to input all your personal information one time, and then it will remember everything for any future use. According to the LastPass website, we should be using passwords that look like “KQo=3oyB>VXG^-6.” With that being said, it is unrealistic for any of us – especially teenagers – to create and use ones like that because of their complexity and difficulty to remember them. LastPass, though, will generate all of these tedious but very secure passwords for all your different accounts, remember them, and populate the appropriate form fields with them at your online account sites. It can also import and use the login and password information you’ve already saved in your web browser.
Furthermore, LastPass provides a great feature called a “secure note” which allows you to keep everything from your social security number to your bank account information to your health insurance details, all sorted out in sections, but allowing you access them in one spot. It even allows you to attach pictures and videos, which is a great way to ensure that your private photos stay private even if someone else obtains access to your phone. LastPass offers different methods of overall security; one of my favorites is a fingerprint feature for unlocking your phone (regardless of its model or version). Other methods of screen unlocking are swiping, patterns, pins, and passwords. It also provides full Web-based access to all of your login and password data (encrypted, of course). LastPass offers a free 14-day trial, and then you have the option to sign up for a $1.00 monthly charge for unlimited premium access. The bottom line is that you can create an account with one password, and LastPass will do the rest. You can access your account on your mobile device, laptop, and desktop computers, as supported platforms include iPhone, Android, Linux, Windows, and Blackberry.
Dashlane is a product which also has the master password, auto form-fill, and digital wallet features like LastPass, but comes with a few notable features. First, it allows you to set an emergency contact who can have access to limited information of your choosing in case of some sort of emergency or death. It also allows you to record all of your online purchases by saving your receipts and any relevant screenshots you might want to include. In addition, Dashlane offers an automated password changer. We all know we are supposed to change our passwords regularly, but very few actually prioritize this task (don’t feel condemned, we understand! J). With the simple press of a button, Dashlane will recognize all your weak passwords and suggest a change. You then have the option to change one or multiple passwords at once. And again, the best part is that they can be convoluted and abstruse, but you don’t have to remember them as that is what the software does for you. Like LastPass, it creates and stores an encrypted backup of all of your login data in the cloud, and allows you to login and see it from any browser.
To increase the security of your account, you can also use two-factor authentication via Google Authenticator. Basically, this adds a layer of protection by validating devices that you seek to login with, and sends you a code via text to your verified smartphone – which you’ll need before you want to access Dashlane on any device. You might think this precautionary measure is overkill – but it is worth the extra ten seconds to receive and type in a code so that just knowing the master password won’t be enough.
Dashlane intuitively walks you through the app on your Android or Apple device, making it very user-friendly. You have unlimited, basic free access to this application and a 30 day premium trial. Dashlane is on the expensive side, but our priority is maximum security. For $39.99 a year for premium membership, you can feel safe when you access your bank account, when you go online shopping, and with their auto-login feature you will save a lot of time! The software even allows you to set an emergency contact, in case of any critical matter. This emergency contact then would have access to limited information of your choosing, should you die or be otherwise incapacitated. Another cool thing is that you can tie multiple pieces of the same type of personal information to one identity. For instance, you might want to have two phone numbers or two email addresses to one – it allows you to do that. Finally, Dashlane lets you keep a history of all your purchases by allowing you to screenshot online transactions and receipts. Dashlane currently supports PC, Mac, Android, and iOS devices.
The SplashID password manager is very elegant and user-friendly, and like the others stores your passwords, credit card information, and anything else you can think of inside of “Business” and “Personal” Categories. As silly as it may sound, you can even store size information for clothes, shoes, etc. (right now, I actually have size information in my Notes app for my home’s air conditioning filters, my car’s air filter, the ring sizes of loved ones, and so much more – and could use this app instead!) A downside to this app is the lack of auto-fill. For example, if I created an account with my basic contact information on it (like my first name, last name, address, city, state, zip code), it would not pre-populate the same fields on another site asking for the same information. I’d have to enter all of my details again. Like the aforementioned managers, SplashID offers strong password generation, and all you have to do is remember your master password. You are also provided with one master password hint, in case you forget it.
After installing this product, you have free access to basic protection, or for 19.99 a year you can use their Pro features, which gives you priority customer service 24/7 and the feedback on the latest security threats. Unlike many of the other password managers, SplashID automatically syncs all your information to the Cloud (automatic secure storage accessible through many devices). This app also has a very cool feature that I did not notice while using other password managers: if you are idle for any specified amount of time from your phone, the app automatically logs out. While evaluating the other programs, I definitely became aware that if I did not manually log out, the app remained open and therefore my private information was at risk if I left my phone somewhere. This app is accessible on iOS and Android devices, Blackberry, Windows Phone, webOS, and Palm OS smartphones, and there are also desktop versions for Macs and PCs.
RoboForm is also a solid choice as a password managers as it can help you generate and remember very strong credentials for all of your sites. I personally don’t think that it is as user-friendly, elegant, and visually attractive as SplashID, for instance, but it has all of the necessary features to store your login information and related notes, and you are able to save different identities for different websites. For example, you may have one profile saved with your credit card information for all of the sites at which you make purchases, and another identity for all other sites that do not ask for credit card information. This allows you to provide or automatically input the appropriate information at the proper online destination – not too much, and not too little – by simply selecting an identity. RoboForm – like Dashlane – also allows you to tie multiple pieces of the same type of contact information to a single identity if you wanted to do so (e.g., three street addresses to one profile).
Norton products are well-known and respected for their antivirus protection capabilities, and now has this new feature which you can download on your computers and phones for free, and use to securely store all your important personal information in one app. It also warns you of malicious sites that might compromise your identity and seeks to alert you if there are any rogue scripts or elements in place so that you don’t fall prey to “phishing” schemes (where the site seems legitimate but is actually fraudulent). This software is very user-friendly and simple to install and set up. You can import passwords stored in your browsers (but not from other password management applications you may have used in the past). Then, when you input your information in a new site, it does what all of the others do – saves it and subsequently fills in that information when you revisit that site in the future. Norton Identity Safe, like the others, offers syncing to the Cloud, but the software itself does not have a password generator to help you create stronger passwords. In addition, it performed less optimally than Dashlane or LastPass in storing all passwords I typed in, and populating all of the form fields at various sites. This program is available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.
Password Genie provides you with all the basic essentials; auto-filling for forms, browser import, you can have access to your account in up to 5 devices with unlimited users, and if you can’t find a category to save your most important documents, you can add your own. Like all the other apps, you have to create a master password, and as you are creating it Password Genie will let you know how secure your password is and advise you to make it stronger if necessary. It also recognizes whenever you input updated information at various sites, and consequently updates its own database. It also deserves comment that this product does a better job than others on unusual login situations (for instance, my bank has a two-page SiteKey system which it could handle).
Another useful feature if you ever get into a pinch is that Password Genie offers live chat help, and remote viewing and access for the desktop version. The remote viewing and access allows the support agent to access your computer as if they were in front of it themselves to investigate any problem the program might have. The software does not, however, import passwords and content from other management programs (although it does allow you to do so from browsers when you install it). Plus, you can store various kinds of personal information in it – but it does not then take that information and use it to populate form fields on various sites. Rather, it only acts like a glorified vault (and for that purpose, I’d rather just use my Notes app on my phone). Password Genie is now available on Android, Mac, and Window devices. Basic free access is available, and it provides an option to upgrade to a premium version for $11.99 a year.
So – what should you use? Here are my recommendations, in order of preference: LastPass, Dashlane, Roboform, SplashID, Norton Identity Safe, and Password Genie. The top two are the best, in my opinion, because they do everything you’d want them to do and their software versions keeps getting better in meaningful ways (such as adding fingerprint authentication!). LastPass is comprehensive and outstanding in its feature-set and perfect for power-users who want customization and flexibility. Dashlane does pretty much everything LastPass does, but is a bit more attractive and user-friendly (at the cost of flexibility). You should pick one of those.
A final caveat: In addition to using a password manager, don’t forget to change your password regularly. No matter how unusual and hard to guess, it could be compromised without you even knowing it. Sometimes hackers access passwords by finding security holes in databases for popular websites and online stores. Once a cyberbully or hacker has gotten to your password, he might also be able to find your name, email address, and other personal information which could then be used to steal your identity. Sometimes the companies or websites themselves don’t even know that the information has been stolen until weeks or months later. So it’s best to change your password at least once a year. Pick a time of year that will remind you to make the switch. Get in the habit of changing your passwords at the start of each school year, on your birthday, or on some other memorable date. Just make sure you don’t let passwords get stale! As they say, forewarned is forearmed – and using a software-based manager will definitely reduce your vulnerability to victimization, and all of the stress, headaches, and heartache that goes with it. And encourage your students to do so when you see them at the beginning of this school year. It might take a few minutes to set up (like anything worth doing!), and you won’t regret doing it but will regret not heeding this advice.
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Speaking to Teens at Parochial Schools about Bullying
Apart from our efforts within various public schools around the nation, Justin and I also work regularly with parochial schools as they attempt to reduce bullying and encourage kindness across their campuses. This gives us a chance to really connect with the youth there in a powerful way by dovetailing their faith with a call for God-honoring behavior – both offline and online. As a Christian, I find these opportunities very rewarding, and I thought it would be good to share something I’ve presented and discussed with high school kids from one of the Catholic Dioceses we work with. Perhaps it can be used to stimulate conversation in other parochial or youth-group settings.
You’re a teenager. You seek to live a life that honors the Lord. And so you know you shouldn’t bully others. If you were asked to give a scriptural reason for why you shouldn’t make fun of, mistreat, embarrass, or threaten someone else – certain verses might come to mind. You might recall how Jesus talked about loving your neighbor as you love yourself, or the Golden Rule from His Sermon on the Mount. You might remember how He talked about turning the other cheek. Maybe you’ll even think about how He talked about how hating someone (or demonstrating hate towards someone) is like murdering them. I know it is such a dramatic comparison, but that is what He said.
The thing is, you know you shouldn’t be a jerk to others – in person, or behind their back at school, or on Instagram or Twitter or YouTube, or while texting your friends. But many of us still do it. Growing up, we care a lot about what our friends and peers think about us, and we care a lot about “saving face” and having as many people as possible like us and being at least somewhat popular…or, at least, definitely not unpopular. And even though we know we should mostly only care about what God thinks about us, and what God has said about us – we still angle and jockey and compete for higher positions and statuses on the social ladder in our schools and peer groups. I mean, it’s natural (and desirable!) for us to gravitate towards the popular and attractive and admired, and dissociate ourselves (intentionally or indirectly) from others that are different, or excluded, or otherwise less well-liked.
Maybe we wish we weren’t like that, but that’s just how it seems to be – in middle school, in high school, and even in some parts of adulthood. We pretty much do all that we can not to be the ones at the bottom of the social ladder. That can’t be us. It feels like we won’t be able to live, we won’t be able to breathe if that were us (as one of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, has said). And so we make sure that it just doesn’t come to that – and we do whatever it takes. Some of these ways are exhausting, and some of them are manipulative, and some of them feel empty and futile but we do them anyway. And some of it definitely involves being mean to others – to make us feel better, to stay at least one rung above someone else on that social ladder, to join in with our friends, or for a variety of other not-so-great reasons.
One of my favorite sections of the Bible is from 1 Peter 3:10-12, where Peter quotes David’s words from Psalm 34. It reads:
For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil.”
I think that out of all that’s in the Bible, this is what personally motivates me the most to never ever be a jerk to another person. Why? Well, let’s break it down.
I really want to love life. And I really want to see good days. All the time, if possible! And I desperately need His eyes on me, and for Him to listen hard for and respond to my prayers. I mean, who doesn’t need that! But it’s presumptuous for me to think that God is some type of glorified vending machine in the sky, dispensing blessings whenever I ask for them, and that I don’t have any role to play in it.
Apparently, I do have a role to play. I am specifically told here not to mess around with impure or unholy or deceitful things coming out of my mouth. I think if Peter and David were raised in the Information Age, they would probably have mentioned the other (more?) popular form of communication in our 21st century – typing and texting. The words that come forth from my mouth, or come forth through my fingers all spring from my heart. And I know I so want my heart to be in the right place when it comes to my relationship with the Lord, and my relationship with others. Deep down, I know what that “right place” feels like. It feels right in my heart when I am doing what the next two verses say – turning from evil and doing good, seeking peace and pursuing it, working towards righteousness (right living). Actually, it feels amazing when I am there, and when I stay there. It feels like, wow, this is exactly where I am supposed to be.
We are always looking for the best ways to live, for direction and guidance that might bring blessings into our life, and for God to keep watch and protect us and take care of us. Peter and David, led by the Holy Spirit, very clearly lay out what we need to do for that to happen. And it helps to remind me that I just cannot be involved in bullying or cyberbullying because it is sin, and it separates me from God. And I can’t have any separation between God and myself if I want to experience His closeness, and be confident that He hears me and delights in the way I am trying to live. Plus, I know that it really messes up my heart. And I just can’t have that.
When the opportunity arises to mistreat someone else, either at school or in cyberspace, I want to encourage you to remember that we just can’t be doing that sort of thing if we want to love life, see good days, and honor our God. I mean, that’s the bottom line. If that’s what you want, do not be mean to others. Do not be that person. It is not worth it, and it never makes the situation – or the state of your heart – better. Instead, pray about the situation and for the other person, and try to get some well-balanced and mature advice from friends and adults in your life. People can help you respond to the conflict or issue that is at the root of it all – whether it is your own problem or someone else’s. Give those people a chance to help you resolve whatever is going on in a positive manner. If you don’t know where to turn, or what to do, let us know – and we’ll do all we can to help.
Nothing Works? Taking Stock of America’s “War on Bullying”
The Obama administration arguably declared war on bullying in the fall of 2010 when it convened the first federally-supported Bullying Prevention Summit. In 2011, stopbullying.gov was launched. That same year, I attended a conference hosted by President Obama at the White House, where he said: “If there is one goal of this conference, it is to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.” Since then, significant resources have been directed toward various programs and initiatives, resulting in what could be characterized as a “Bullying Industrial Complex.” Many companies now offer simple “solutions” to bullying. But are any of these efforts working?
Lessons Learned from Efforts in the Criminal Justice System
Forty years ago, sociologist Robert Martinson published an article that changed the course of history, or at least the history of the American criminal justice system. He quite appropriately sought to ascertain the effectiveness of programs that were being used to rehabilitate those among us who choose to break the law. Upon reviewing the available evaluation evidence, he came to the conclusion that: “… with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (1974: 25). This was subsequently converted by politicians and the media to a much more concise and headline-worthy “Nothing Works.” If Twitter had been around back then, you can bet #NothingWorks would have been trending.
The reason this article and its subsequent public interpretation was historic can be easily seen in the impact it had on incarceration rates in the US. Martinson’s paper has been credited as being the magnetic force that powerfully and almost instantaneously pushed the penal pendulum away from a medical model–focused on treating the underlying causes of a person’s criminality–to a retributive regime wherein community safety and crime control became Priority Number One. The result was three decades of mass incarceration, fueled by mandatory sentencing schemes, and the abolition of release-readiness determining parole boards. However, most people–even staunch tough-on-crime-minded folks–would agree that this policy has failed miserably, resulting in more crime and not less. To say nothing of the social and economic toll on society.
Bullying Prevention Efforts in 2015
Some could say that we are at another Martinson moment with respect to our efforts to curb bullying. The work of federal, state, and local governments has definitely prompted increased public discourse about bullying. Simultaneously, though, resource-strapped schools continue to struggle with heightened expectations that they “handle” these situations. Many educators have therefore turned to various bullying prevention programs, initiatives, and campaigns to make some headway in reducing the problem. Unfortunately, only a small handful of these efforts have been rigorously evaluated. And many of those that have, have been shown to fall short in making truly significant gains. If you believe the research, most of what we have done to prevent bullying over the last two decades has not yielded the kind of results we would hope for. University of Illinois Psychologist Dorothy Espelage summarized the sentiment succinctly in a 2013 paper: “the impact of bullying prevention programs in the United States has been disappointing.”
Recent high-profile analyses of dozens of bullying prevention program evaluations have all generally come to the same conclusion: nothing works. Most troublingly, a study published last year suggested that schools that implement a bullying prevention program are actually doing worse when it comes to preventing bullying than schools that do not. Specifically: “…students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to have experienced peer victimization, compared to those attending schools without bullying prevention programs.” This was picked up by the media and shared widely as evidence that bullying prevention programs do not work.
The researchers in this study (one of whom is a friend of mine from graduate school) examined data from 7,001 students from 195 schools across the United States. Sixty-five percent of the schools had some bullying prevention program, presumably as reported by the students from within those schools. Students who said their school had a bullying prevention program were significantly more likely to self-report that they had been both physically and emotionally victimized. Victimization included several different types of behaviors, but it isn’t specified how exactly “bullying prevention program” was defined. So it is hard to view this as evidence of failure, since we don’t know anything about the programs that “failed.” Also of note is the fact that these data were collected nearly 10 years ago – well before the federal and state governments mobilized their efforts against bullying.
More recently, Espelage and her colleagues reviewed 19 evaluations of bullying prevention programs and found that these efforts do ok with younger students (7th grade and lower), but largely fail among students in high school: “Altogether, the present analysis suggests that we cannot yet confidently rely on anti-bullying programs for grades 8 and above.” David Finkelhor, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, and his colleagues surveyed 3,391 5-17 year-olds and asked about their exposure to various violence prevention programs. They found that lower quality programs, and those that targeted older youth, had less success in preventing participation in, and experience with, peer victimization. Taken together, these academic papers paint a generally gloomy picture of the bullying prevention landscape.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Despite the depressing findings, I don’t believe we should give up all hope. Sameer and I travel throughout the United States and speak with educators and students who are doing great things in their schools to prevent bullying and promote kindness and compassion. Our conversations with these people lead us to believe that some efforts are fruitful. The problem is that these initiatives have not been formally evaluated. In short, we are confident that there are effective actions being taken in schools, but they need to be scrutinized, documented, and publicized.
In fact, Maria Ttofi and David Farrington (both from the University of Cambridge) conducted a more sophisticated analysis of forty-four bullying prevention efforts (excluding programs that targeted violence or aggression generally) and uncovered some promising evidence: “…school-based anti-bullying programs are effective: on average, bullying decreased by 20–23% and victimization decreased by 17–20%.” Ttofi and Farrington also go into specific detail about the elements of anti-bullying programs that seem to be the most effective (e.g., parent training, playground supervision, and classroom management). Finkelhor and his colleagues agreed that there were some bright spots in the research: “Peer victimization rates and bullying perpetration rates in the past year were lower for the younger children (ages 5–9) who had been exposed to higher quality programs in their lifetime.” Higher quality programs included “multi-day presentations, practice opportunities, information to take home, and [a] meeting for parents.”
This brings us back to the lessons learned in our attempts to curb crime. Upon closer review of Martinson’s paper, readers will realize that he wasn’t saying that nothing could work, just that our efforts at rehabilitation weren’t being adequately funded to expect much of a change. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We still provide far too little funding to bullying prevention initiatives to help them do what they are intended to do. As with research on how to effectively prevent crime, Ttofi and Farrington find that “…the intensity and duration of a program is directly linked to its effectiveness.” We can’t spend just a few minutes once a year talking with students about bullying and expect it to be a long-term solution to this pernicious problem. A complicated social problem demands a comprehensive solution.
And there’s also emerging evidence that bullying behaviors are decreasing (or at least not significantly increasing). Recently-released data from the National Crime Victimization Survey’s School Crime Supplement shows that the percent of students who said they were bullied in 2013 declined to 21.8 (from an average of 29.3% in the four previous biennial studies conducted between 2005 to 2011). Cyberbullying rates also dropped in the most recent survey (from 9% in 2011 to 6.7% in 2013). It’s still too early to tell if this is the beginning of a trend, or even if the numbers obtained are representative of an actual decrease in bullying behaviors across the U.S. Other national sources of data don’t depict similar decreases. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System data, for example, found that 19.6% of students were bullied in 2013, compared to 20.1% in 2011.
All of this said, I think it is safe to conclude that some programs work for some kids in some schools under some circumstances. In short, something works. The bottom line is that we need to: 1) identify promising programs (with meaningful intensity and duration); 2) fully fund these programs so they can do what they were designed to do; and 3) carefully evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. Armed with this information, legislators and policymakers can work with local school districts to promote best practices in bullying prevention. Only then will we begin to see sustainable reductions in bullying behaviors.
Bullying, Students with Disabilities, and Federal Law
At a recent conference in Chester County, Pennsylvania, I had the privilege of getting to know Andy Faust, who is an authority on special education law at Sweet, Stevens, Katz & Williams LLP. In particular, I was impressed by his level of expertise and intrigued by his astute observations about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and how some kids who are bullied – and some kids who bully others – may be entitled to the federal law’s protections as “children with disabilities.” I told Andy that no one is really talking about the reality and implications of this in my circles, and that it is worth sharing to our readership so that they can fully understand the situation. So, he and I have been going back and forth to flesh this out, and his insights are as follows:
Based on my review of certain court cases, Office of Civil Rights opinions, and “Dear Colleague” guidance documents, as well as informed inference and anecdotal experience acquired over 28 years of practice, many kids who chronically engage in bullying behaviors (e.g., aggressors, offenders) can be categorized as “children with disabilities” under the IDEA. In particular, chronic or severe acting out by these kids would easily meet the definition of “severely emotionally disturbed” (SED) —which is one of the twelve disability categories under which students can qualify for special education services. The definition of SED requires that the child in question demonstrate any one of separate five “characteristics” to a “marked degree and over a long period of time.”
- 2.08 (3) (a) (i) An inability to learn which is not primarily the result of intellectual, sensory or other health factors;
- 2.08 (3) (a) (ii) An inability to build or maintain interpersonal relationships which significantly interferes with the child’s social development;
- 2.08 (3) (a) (iii) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
- 2.08 (3) (a) (iv) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; and/or
- 2.08 (3) (a) (v) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
It seems obvious that this list of characteristics could easily describe what we commonly associate with “bullying” behavior. To note, though, there is a so-called “socially maladjusted” rule-out in the SED definition – which basically means that you cannot state that a child is severely emotionally disturbed if this is the case. Well, you might wonder exactly what “socially maladjusted” means. It is a term with no resonance in modern clinical practice, but one that many associate with “conduct disorder” or sociopathic behavior, and therefore ultimately subject to interpretation.
The problem with all of this is that one cannot easily discriminate between behavior that is “inappropriate … under ordinary circumstances” and that which is socialized in the child, or is a conscious source of pleasure or positive reinforcement for the child when they bully others. It is difficult to figure out, then, if bullying aggressors are intentionally hurtful towards others, or their bullying behavior is simply an unhealthy byproduct of the fact that they are possibly severely emotionally disturbed (see the bullet-pointed characteristics above). If the former, those who bully others do not qualify for special education services because they are socially maladjusted. However, those kids could very well be the latter, and thereby deserving of special education services.
On the other side of the equation, many bullying targets also can readily demonstrate one or more of the characteristics mentioned above “to a marked degree and over a long period of time.” As stated earlier, these include “inappropriate type of behavior under ordinary circumstances,” “an inability to develop or maintain satisfactory relationships with peers or adults,” and “fears or anxiety associated with school or other issues.” As such, demonstrating these symptoms in sufficient severity warrants their classification under the SED label – rendering them due special education services under the IDEA. As another outcome, some kids who are bullied also can act out not just as a coping mechanism, but possibly because they have or develop ASD (autism spectrum disorder(s)). Autism is, of course, another of the twelve labels available under the IDEA for classification of students in need (and deserving) of special education services.
All of this begs the question: to what are bullied youth – and youth who bully others – entitled as it relates to special education interventions if considered to be students with disabilities? Under the IDEA, the purpose of special education is not just correction and support of academic deficits. Indeed, social and behavioral deficits that affect participation in the learning process or access to the learning environment are regarded in much the same way an academic deficit is regarded. Just as we can teach a struggling reader the foundational phonological awareness, decoding, and fluency skills needed to comprehend grade-level text, so too we can teach children with learning-interfering behaviors to:
~ self-monitor the thoughts and physical symptoms that accompany feelings of frustration, anger, fear, or anxiety;
~ identify the circumstances that trigger these feelings;
~ rate the level of their emotional state; and,
~ apply replacement strategies to address those feelings when they arise.
We can also teach a child with social skills deficits to recognize non-verbal social cues and the meaning of colloquial and idiomatic language (so they don’t take certain statements expressed by their peers too seriously or literally), and to initiate and sustain appropriate conversations with peers and adults. These outcomes can be described and monitored measurably as annual goals in an Individual Education Program (IEP) and implemented through direct, explicit instruction in a special education classroom (in Pennsylvania, there are programs that provide “emotional support” and others that provide ‘autistic support,” and most states have similar vehicles). Alternatively, they can be implemented in the form of a “related service” such as general counseling, psychological and mental health counseling, and social work services, whether delivered individually or in a group setting.
Special education, of course, is an intervention of extraordinary last resort. We should move to a special education solution for those kids who are bullied or who bully others who are already diagnosed and identified as disabled and whose behavior is a manifestation of their identified disabilities. For those children not diagnosed and identified as such, the law encourages the use of general intervention practices to provide the sorts of measurable, outcomes-driven support (such as that described above).
As I’ve been talking this out and digging deeper to understand all of the issues involved, I want to emphasize a very critical point (brought up to me by my longtime colleague and ADA attorney Mike Tully). When it can be shown certain behaviors are a result of a formally diagnosed impairment (bipolarity, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, oppositional/defiant disorder, etc.), schools are legally responsible to provide accommodation instead of discipline for the aggressors and additional services/support for the targets. Schools cannot discipline a disability, nor can they discipline and provide accommodations at the same time.
Parents of aggressors and targets can lobby for additional support, services, and resources for their kids under the auspices of the IDEA, but schools should make sure a formal medical diagnosis is made to avoid overidentification. This would be detrimental because a) public schools have little resources to go around as it is and b) there is a history of placing African-American males in special education programming simply because they tended to be more hyperactive – and this constitutes a form of segregation). Also, there is a need to protect against false claims that a student is SED and thereby a qualifier for special privileges and services. To reiterate, only if a child is formally diagnosed as suffering from a disability should we proceed in providing them with IDEA-related accommodations so that they can have educational opportunities without compromise. Furthermore, only then should that diagnosis change a school’s traditional response to their involvement in bullying as the offender or target.
Setting up a Free Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice
I have written in the past on anonymous reporting systems in schools, and I strongly advocate for them whenever I have the opportunity to speak to educators on how they should prevent cyberbullying. Based on your own observations, I am sure you’d agree with me that youth are way more comfortable texting/typing – especially when it relates to giving emotionally-laden statements or sharing stories of a sensitive or delicate nature to an adult (such as a teacher, counselor, or administrator). Not only do these systems cater to the preferred method of communication for kids, they also offer confidentiality to the person providing the report. Furthermore, they help to empower youth to be agents of change and step up for themselves or for others who are being victimized. Finally, they allow for real-time reporting, can alert you to minor situations before they become major, and can provide a tangible “paper trail” of documentation for each and every issue that is made known.
Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. Schools sometimes are hesitant to set up these systems because they are concerned about false positives. They assume that students are just going to screw around with the system and make all sorts of ridiculous, juvenile reports and waste everyone’s time. They even wonder if some students will attempt to bully others by reporting them as an aggressor. Those are legitimate possibilities, but they are largely unfounded. Every school we have worked with that has implemented these systems has said that yes, they might receive a few insincere reports a year, but the vast majority are legitimate and provide extremely helpful information to consider. The bottom line is that using these systems allow students to be the eyes and ears out there in the school community to keep educators in the loop about issues they really must know. And getting in front of these issues – or incendiary sparks, if you will pardon the metaphor – can definitely keep them from flaring up into a blazing inferno of sorts.
Second, whenever I spend time with youth at schools, I am reminded that they honestly do want to speak up. They do. The problem is, they just don’t know how to do so safely and in a way that feels comfortable for them. And, they are concerned about the possible fallout from doing so (being found out, labeled a tattletale, targeted with retaliation). It is up to schools, then, to create and provide safe mechanisms for reporting, and to have policies and procedures in place to reduce as much as possible the potential for that fallout.
There are a number of commercial services to which school districts can subscribe that provide this functionality. Some are fantastic, well-developed, and even provide more advanced features – and therefore are worth checking out. However, since many school districts cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial service, or may want a solution with a smaller footprint, I wanted to share how they might provide a similar tool to their school community through Google Voice at no cost. I believe it does a great job of what we would want it to do: to field private reports from the student body to alert the school about situations they should investigate.
How it Works
The system is built around a main phone number created through a new Google Voice account and then shared with the entire student body as a tipline or report-line. The system then disseminates the student voicemails (rare) and texts (frequent) to school personnel such as the assistant principal, the counselor, or the school police officer for investigation and follow-up. Voicemails can be sent as a sound file or even transcribed into text, and then emailed to a specified address. Texts can be forwarded to a specific email (or multiple emails) as well.
All point people (administrators, law enforcement, etc.) who want to access the tip line will have to download the Google Voice App to their phone or tablet (Android or iOS devices). Once the app is downloaded, they must configure it congruent with the settings of the how the Google Voice tipline was set up (e.g., input the same login and password used to create the tipline in the first place). Once the app is set up, that point person can respond to texts and calls from tipsters from within the app, and only the tipline number will be displayed on outgoing texts (as opposed to the point person’s actual phone number). This is critical, because it maintains the confidentiality and privacy of the administrators and law enforcement who respond to tips from their personal devices.
Who Responds to Tips?
Typically, each school should assign a point person to deal with the reports as they come in. Specific responses can be based on offense seriousness; most are addressable by intervention from an administrator or counselor. However, if the matter is more serious (e.g., involves threats, sexually-explicit pictures of minors, coercion or blackmail, or viable evidence of other criminal activity) the school police officer or local law enforcement department should be notified to intercede.
What Should Be Reported?
In discussing the reporting system with students, it should be stressed that no issue is too small. We want students to use them extensively and to let the school know if there is anything amiss that should be investigated. Of course, schools should clearly convey that that actual emergencies should be reported to the police via 911 or another method. While the purpose here is to encourage its use when bullying or cyberbullying is involved, schools should welcome kids keeping them in the loop whenever they notice, witness, or otherwise become aware of:
- Abuse at home (or elsewhere)
- Concerns about a fellow student (self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.)
- Criminal activity (drugs, extortion, theft, vandalism, rape, etc.)
- General threats to campus safety or the campus environment
Is the System Truly Anonymous?
In a word, no. Anyone who calls or texts the tipline will have their phone number recorded. Typically, though, if the tipster does not want to reveal their identity, it is difficult to know who is behind the tip because the school doesn’t readily have a database of student cell phone numbers to cross-reference (schools typically only have a database of the parent/guardian contact information on file for each student). Googling the phone number also rarely reveals any identifying information unless the student has posted his or her cell phone across the Web and publicly-accessible social media pages. As such, there is definitely a strong measure of privacy in the system.
Other points to remember
- When responding to students tips via text, be sure to sign your name. Remember, they will not be able to see your actual phone number but instead will see the phone number of the tipline.
- The school, when responding, should always thank the tipster for the information, commend them for caring about the safety of their community, and remind him or her that it will be kept confidential.
- Because of FERPA rules, schools should not voluntarily disclose information about certain students in their text interactions with the tipster (e.g., names, personal histories, etc.).
- Always keep all interactions formal and professional, as they may serve as documentation in a case file or even court proceedings in the future. A school’s point person should never be casual in their texts through this system, even though it is a medium with which we all are extremely comfortable.
- There can also be follow-up dialogue via text in this process, as the school may request more information from the tipster or the tipster desire to share more information with the school.
- Students should be reminded that the system should not be abused. They should know this anyway, but sometimes it still needs to be articulated.
In sum, we strongly believe that every school should have a system in place that allows students who experience or observe bullying or cyberbullying (or any inappropriate behavior) to report it in as confidential a manner as possible. It seems obvious that we should be using mediums that youth already prefer. In addition, being able to broach the subject without being forced to reveal one’s identity or do it face-to-face may prove valuable in alerting faculty and staff to harmful student experiences, and help promote an informed response to bring positive change. Just make sure that students know about the system (use posters, messaging strategies, and other creative ways to get it out there!) and try to overcome any qualms they might have about using it.
Finally, please remember that if you decide to provide such a resource to your school community, every complaint should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Since the use of this system does provide the paper trail I talked about earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your due diligence with all reports to avoid any claims of liability or negligence. If the school responds promptly, and if it is a good experience for the student providing the tip, he or she will let other students know – and the system will be used more. Even better, the student body will be reminded that the school truly cares about them and is implementing progressive measures to make that clear.
Here is our step-by-step guide in PDF format to walk educators through the process of setting up a Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice.
What the Best Bullying and Cyberbullying Assembly Speakers Do
Last week I shared what I feel are the most important considerations for schools planning to host bullying assembly programs. This week, I wanted to focus on speakers themselves. As you may know from your own experiences, there are fantastic ones out there, but there are also many who leave a lot to be desired. Justin and I regularly do assemblies all across the United States (and occasionally abroad), and truly enjoy visiting and working with students, staff, and parents in this capacity. However, we simply cannot do them for everyone, as much as we would love to. As such, here are my thoughts on what the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do.
Speakers need to be relatable.
You may have heard that you win or lose your audience in the first few minutes of your talk. That is a short amount of time, and a lot of pressure to grab and hold their attention. Relatable speakers will deeply connect with the audience by demonstrating complete familiarity of, and appreciation with, the offline and online world of teens (but not in a way that seems contrived or fake). In addition, they must immediately engage students – not with scare tactics – but by clarifying at the onset why what they have to say matters to the students’ very lives. And how their message is different than all of the other anti-bullying messages the students have heard before. And that ultimately, the speaker is on their side. This is usually conveyed differently for elementary, middle, and high schoolers, and is a critically important skill to master. If the presentation somehow betrays that the speaker (and, by extension, the school) just doesn’t “get” kids and teens these days, and doesn’t really understand fully what is going on, its impact will be greatly stunted.
Speakers need to be uplifting.
The overall message, on its whole, should be hopeful and empowering. No one wants to be completely bummed out and depressed after listening to a speaker. That totally and completely drains away the audience’s desire and motivation to try and make a difference. Yes, kids need to understand the weight of pain, regret, and potential consequences that surround bullying and cyberbullying, but they cannot flourish and meaningfully contribute to a better peer and school environment under that burden. No one can. And no one will want to. Speakers must make sure the presentation is balanced, and leaves students feeling fired up and equipped to foster change.
Speakers need to focus on the positive.
Many adults are keen to focus on teen conflict, drama, harassment, and hate, and share those stories in an attempt to motivate youth to do the opposite instead. But we’ve found that those good intentions don’t lead to the desired effect. Instead, it can come across as condescending and preachy. Being subjected to those stories makes teens feel that adults expect the worst of them, and that they need to be managed and controlled instead of trusted and empowered. Justin and I strongly believe that speakers must point out all of the good that teens are doing as they embrace social media and electronic communications, instead of emphasizing all of the ways in which students have screwed up. Speakers should try to inspire them by showing them examples of teens just like them who are making a difference by standing up for what’s right. There are an increasing number of sites sharing meaningful stories of teens (and adults) doing kind things! Check out our Words Wound movement, Huffington Post’s Good News, Upworthy, One Good Thing, or A Platform for Good for ideas. Ideally, seeds will be planted in some of the youth. Then, they hopefully will be motivated to replicate the ideas discussed, or come up with their own (specific to their skills and situations) and work to contribute to widespread change on their campus.
Speakers need to have great content.
The data, stories, and examples they share must align with and reflect what the students have been observing and experiencing on their own, or else their message will be discredited and dismissed as irrelevant. The presentation should be interactive, fun, solemn at times (I mean, we are ultimately discussing a pretty serious topic here!), memorable, smooth, and somehow unique. It should also be updated with the latest research (when appropriate, don’t bore them with bar charts!), trends, headlines, stories, and screenshots. Many speakers want to do this, but honestly never really get around to updating their presentations. This will not win over the audience, and keep them locked in to what is being shared. Speakers should remember that students have heard this message before, and their default reaction will be to tune out because of the way this topic has been browbeaten into them. This is why content is – and always will be – king.
Speakers should include solutions.
Students want to know who they can trust and confide in if they are being mistreated. They want to know how to really, truly get someone to stop being mean, and how to anonymously report problems, and how to block mean people on specific networks or apps. They want clear direction as to how to intervene so that it doesn’t backfire on them, and how best to help others in a way that is safe for them as well. They need clear, specific strategies that are age-appropriate and will actually work. At the same time, schools need to know that a good number of presentations are high on inciting emotional responses but low on solutions. Just make sure you identify your goals at the outset, so you are not left feeling like something was missing after the presentation(s).
Speakers should have a plan for follow-up.
They should have books, materials, activities, resources – something they can distribute to the school so that faculty and staff can debrief with the kids and thereby continue the conversation after the assembly (and, ideally, on a regular basis throughout the year). And the resources should clearly mirror the messages conveyed in the assembly, so that everything builds upon itself. If the speaker doesn’t have content to share, he or she should be able to recommend the best out there. This simply demonstrates that they know the proverbial lay of the land, and have taken the time to figure out what can help the school on a long-term basis with their bullying prevention goals.
Ultimately, a great speaker with great content makes for a great presentation. I know that sounds intuitive, which is why I wanted to drill down into the essential components to show individuals what matters the most. I hope the preceding helps those of you who are out there on the front lines, working hard to raise awareness on this incredibly important issue. If we are spending our lives (and the time, attention, and resources of schools) trying to communicate a truly transformative message, we must give it our best – and do it right.
Bullying Assembly Programs – What Schools Need to Know
Schools have been organizing assemblies to address bullying, substance abuse, and a variety of other student issues for as long as I can remember. I definitely remember sitting through them during middle school in particular, and – unfortunately – tuning out because I just didn’t feel like I could connect with the speaker. When it came to the assemblies about bullying, I thought to myself, “yes, we all realize that it’s wrong to be mean to others, but nothing really is going to change at my school, and so why even bother?” I admit that was quite a defeatist mentality, but I’ll blame it in large part on my disillusioned, angst-ridden adolescent self.
That said, I also remember a couple of more inspirational speakers who gave presentations at my schools – and while they weren’t at all about bullying, I did find them compelling, hopeful, motivating, and even instructive. And I didn’t feel like I was being preached or lectured to. That showed me I could be reached – it just really seemed to depend on the quality of the content, the tone of the message, the level at which I was spoken to, and the relatability of what was conveyed. The bottom line is that there is value in assembly programs, but their selection and implementation requires significant consideration and forethought.
The Assembly as a Bullying Solution
Since schools know that bullying and cyberbullying is a problem on their campus and want to do something about it, scheduling an assembly is often the very first idea that comes to their mind. It makes sense, because they seem to be an easy-to-implement solution. Typically, a school has a budget, they find a speaker (or just have one of their staff members do it), they schedule the day and time, and they bring that person in to do his/her thing in the auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria. This takes a lot less time and effort than all that is actually needed to make a true difference. But at least it is something.
To be sure, there are a ton of options available for schools in this space. Just do a Google search for “bullying assembly” or “cyberbullying assembly,” and you’ll find pages and pages of people, many of whom are self-described “experts” (perhaps they are, I have no idea). Many educators also receive unsolicited emails from speakers, encouraging them to check out their web sites and skillsets, and consider hiring them to talk to their students. The speakers’ web sites describe what makes their particular talks engaging, interactive, and motivating, and most provide testimonials highlighting the benefit the assemblies provided to the school and attendant students. All of this is good. Really good. There is definitely a need to reach kids with a gripping and powerful message that cultivates empathy, induces intentional kindness and respect towards one’s peers, and equips them to know exactly what to do if they – or someone they know – is being targeted. And there is definitely a need for many speakers to be out there doing their part to help. However, there are three points which we want to make to help inform your implementation:
1. Assemblies must be used as a single piece of a much broader effort.
While a bullying assembly does have some value, we cannot emphasize strongly enough that a “one and done” strategy will fall short and ring painfully hollow in time – even if it is the most heart-rending or entertaining or memorable or impressive or convicting talk your youth have ever heard in their entire lives. Students need more. Bullying prevention initiatives in schools can have assemblies as part of their programming, but according to the research need more substantive characteristics such as information sent home to parents, requests for parents to attend meetings (so as to get them on board to help educators with the message), instructive role-playing scenarios in the classroom, and efforts that lasted more than one day. Schools need more than a flash-in-the-pan event, even if it is really good. The speaker’s efforts can have great value as a launching pad from which other initiatives can take off. These can include a comprehensive anti-bullying curriculum, peer-to-peer programming, specifically training faculty/staff on how to teach digital civility and how to handle problems that arise, modules on socio-emotional learning, stress management, and conflict resolution, social norming, and building a positive school climate.
2. Consider the impact of the specific content
A school’s good intentions to impact, influence, and inspire their student body may backfire if the speaker or organization is not carefully vetted, and if the message is not carefully designed – with every word measured and every aspect planned and prepped for. For example, in just the last six months one school district has had significant reputational fallout in the community because they brought in a speaker whose interactive exercises may have contributed to excessive vulnerability (and even emotional and psychological pain) by students, and consequently further targeting by bullies, and at least one school district has been sued for indirectly contributing to a teen suicide by hiring a speaker who gave a presentation that may have planted ideas of self-harm as a viable option out of the pain one is experiencing.
3. Take the time to find a great speaker to optimize chances for success
Schools interested in bringing out speakers to conduct student assemblies must demonstrate due diligence and do their background research. This is one of the primary ways to find out if they actually are relatable and uplifting, and if they actually have great content that focuses on the positive, provides real solutions, and can lead to specific follow-up by the school. We suggest that educators reach out to colleagues at other schools for specific recommendations. Feel free to even cold call those you don’t know but who work at schools similar to your own. Feel free to review testimonials, but also know that a speaker’s testimonials may not paint a full picture. As such, we also recommend that you take the time to schedule a call with potential speakers so you can get to know their style, passion, convictions, content areas, and exactly how they will connect with your students.
My next blog will detail what I believe the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do, in order to illuminate what makes a great quality presentation to youth. In addition, Justin and I would love to hear your own thoughts, observations, and experiences in this area, and so feel free to weigh in!
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.
ITO Club – Student Leaders Transforming School Climate to Prevent Bullying
For a few years now, I have admired the leadership and initiative of Ms. Geraldine Johnson, Bullying Prevention Coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley School District. She stands out in my mind as one of the most caring youth workers I have ever known, and it is so inspiring to see the love she has for her students and the love her students have for her. Together, they have proactively sought to combat bullying and create an environment in which kindness, peer respect, and acceptance reign supreme. Central to this effort is their ITO Club, which we featured in our new cyberbullying book for teens entitled “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.” ITO stands for “It Takes One” – and that message is the primary thread in the fabric of their programming to really make a difference and transform their school community for good. Here is her story:
In my role as a behavior specialist and special educator for over 30 years, I have done many social skill lessons and bullying prevention lessons that involve role-play with students of all ages. During these discussions and role-plays I found that most students do not agree with the mistreatment of their peers, but do not always know what to do about it. I discovered that – just like when teaching academics – the more we teach students how and what to do, the more likely they are to do it! I decided that in order to get students to support each and to be active bystanders, they need to be taught explicitly what to do.
Most students are able to express how uncomfortable the unkind behaviors make them feel, but do not know how to respond. That is what motivated me to start the ITO (It Takes One) Club – to teach the students that behavior –good and bad – is contagious, and if one person stands up for someone who is being treated unkindly, others will follow. I wanted it to be “popular” and “cool” to be kind. I wanted to have a place for students to learn how to support each other in fun, supportive, and creative ways. ITO has become much more than that…. It has become not only a club, but a place for students to learn to support each other, a major change agent. Students are spreading the message, “It takes one. Be one.” And “It takes one. I am one.” The emphasis of the club has become not only how to support someone who is being treated in an unkind way, but also how to be pro-active and prevent incidents from happening. Students are being reinforced for “being the change.” Our goal is to have all students at CV know that if something unkind is done to them, there will be staff and students there to support them.
Implementing ITO in our schools requires a lot of planning, cooperation, and passion from students and adults. Without the support and cooperation from school and district administration, the ITO program would not be able to thrive. Fortunately, our principals, Mr. Rob Martin (co-advisor) and Ms. Judy Baumgardner are passionate about the program and willing to devote time and energy into making it work. Additionally, Mr. Martin and Ms. Baumgardner model for parents, students, and staff what “treating others with respect” looks like on a daily basis. Being an ITO advisor requires a major time commitment in order to be available to students, to assess the effects of the program, to do research, and to attend club activities and meetings. Besides having a passion for the mission, advisors must also enjoy working with adolescents, knowing when to step back and let students take the lead. Advisors must also be able to encourage students not to be defeated by the naysayers and to keep things positive while prioritizing and assessing our efforts.
Students who lead the club must also model the respectful behaviors we are trying to spread. Our student leaders go through process which includes filling out an application, writing an essay, teacher evaluation, and formal interviews with current ITO leaders and advisors. We have learned that involving students in every level of the process is an important component to making ITO successful. The student leaders become our “eyes and ears” of the school, not about specific behaviors or incidents, but about what students are thinking and what will work to get the message across to them. We have found that both students and staff are much more receptive to information if it comes from students themselves. Our student leaders give our adult bullying prevention team feedback on class meetings and activities in order to make information relevant and student-friendly.
Because our student leaders have such an important voice in planning and intervention, it is also very important that our leaders are educated on the most up-to-date research-based information on bullying prevention and school climate. To accomplish this, we do formal training with our student leaders, using such resources as Dr. Sameer Hinduja’s work and resources, combined with the “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.” As a certified Olweus trainer, I bring the most up-to- date information to the leaders so they can be confident in their efforts to spread the word in their presentations, club activities, and in social media. Student leaders must also learn to work as a team and compromise on projects. Our eventual goal is to add the ITO program to the already existing bullying prevention programs in all levels, from elementary to secondary, so every student can benefit from ITO.
Our student leaders meet with us bi- weekly to plan club meetings. The club meetings, also bi-weekly, include activities such as guest speakers, parties, team building activities, socials, and community events. Our leaders use social media to get the word out about meetings. All students are invited to the club activities. We put great effort into getting students from different groups, clubs, and interests to join us. An anonymous referral system that is available to all students, staff and parents is also used to find students who need extra support and possibly intervention. This has helped us to identify teens who have been marginalized for some reason or another, but are incredibly amazing people and who need to get plugged in. Finally, students who are inspired to step up and make a positive change here at our school are recognized and commended by the staff and administration.
In my thirty-plus years as an educator, being the creator and advisor for the ITO program has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Although there have been challenges, I am reminded on a daily basis how these students are making a positive change and affecting the lives of so many in our school and community.
Here are some additional perspectives from students I met while working with Geraldine:
ITO (It Takes One) is an outlet for some, and a safe place for others. ITO for me was both but most importantly it was a club that I could express my passion for preventing something so awful in our school. It has given me more opportunities than ever imagined and a new appreciation for teamwork and compromise. ITO has taught me to still believe in the good hearts of high school students but always be aware that everyone isn’t as kind- hearted, but you always have a friend in this club. Personally, this club has taught me invaluable life lessons and I have met life changing people along the way. My personal mission statement is that it is by far “more cool” to be the nice kid and be the kid to stand up for someone rather than turning a shoulder or even engaging in the action. Being nice will be the trait to take you places in this world.
~ Dana Basehore
As a senior leader for ITO (It Takes One) Club, I advise our media relations within the school and throughout social media networks. My goal is to spread our mission as far as the eye can see, and beyond! We work to prevent harassment within our community, and this serves to bring people together. I have seen firsthand how great of an impact our efforts have been through the lives of our high school students, and we have so much more to achieve with our club members this year! My hope is to reach as many students as possible with our message and teach students and community members how to bring people together for a common cause. Learning to be an active bystander has really helped me in difficult situations, and I am honored to be a senior leader for one of the most important clubs that is not only making a change in our school, but also in our society.
~ Aeliana Lomax
Getting Teens to Rethink Cyberbullying
This year, I’ve enjoyed being in touch with Trisha Prabhu, a 14-year-old freshman at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. In the fall of 2013, after hearing about a young girl’s suicide because of cyberbullying, she set out to design a long-term solution to cyberbullying. Her work led her to the product Rethink, which won a spot as a Google Science Fair 2014 Global Finalist. Rethink gives adolescents trying to post an offensive message on social media a second chance to reconsider their decision. Her product idea also won first prize at the PowerPitch Competition at 1871, Chicago’s technology and entrepreneurial hub. Rethink has been covered on Business Insider, the International Business Times, the Huffington Post, and several other media outlets. She currently holds a Provisional Patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for her Rethink idea. Finally, she recently spoke at TEDxTeen in London (and did amazing)!
I thought it would be valuable for our audience to hear the specifics of her story, because it is just really inspiring. I want teens to know that many times, your answers and solutions can truly make a difference. Adults don’t have things figured out, and we need teens to help us tackle the problems that they face in adolescence. Their voices and their ideas matter, and they can transform their schools and communities – and ultimately even contribute to the betterment of society – as Trisha hopes to do!
In the fall of 2013, I came home from school to read the story of a young girl named Rebecca Sedwick. She was 11 years old and lived in Florida. Over the last few years, she had been extensively cyberbullied by classmates. After contacting administrators and switching schools, the cyberbullying persisted. Rebecca jumped off of her town’s water tower to her death. I was shocked, heartbroken and angry when I learned of the news of this young girl’s suicide. How could a girl younger than myself be pushed to take her own life? How could this have happened? I didn’t even want to imagine what her life must’ve been like during the last few weeks before her suicide, and what her family was going through now. I knew immediately I had to do something to stop this hurting from ever happening again – I became passionate to help stop cyberbullying.
From a young age, I’ve always had thick skin. I’ve received offensive messages online about my wardrobe, etc. but I’ve always brushed them off and moved on with life. But after reading about how cyberbullying had so terribly affected Rebecca, I decided that enough was enough. Statistics showed that a large number of adolescents in the United States alone had been cyberbullied, and that many of them showed signs of suicidal tendencies. As I researched more, I was stunned – one quarter of the world’s population are adolescents. That’s about 1.8 billion teens. Cyberbullied victims suffer silently from low self-esteem, depression, drop out of school and suffer from suicidal tendencies. Some of the recent studies show that the negative effects of cyberbullying lasts decades after the offensive messages were first posted.
Current solutions to stop cyberbullying are short-term and ineffective. Many popular social media sites today offer a STOP, BLOCK, TELL solution to try to stop the cyberbullying. But why, I wondered, were we placing the burden on the victim to block the cyberbullying, after the damage was done? Many other sites recommend immediately alerting a parent or guardian about the cyberbullying – but 9 out of 10 times, adolescents don’t tell anyone that their being cyberbullied and suffer in silence.
I truly couldn’t believe that adolescents could be so awful and cruel on social media. What was the root cause of this problem? What was the science behind this awful behavior? Why did kids cyberbully? Research showed that adolescents’ brain is likened to a car with no brakes. There is an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex that controls decision making. It isn’t fully developed until the early to mid-twenties, which is why we often see adolescents making quirky, rash behavior. Research has already linked this behavior to early drug and substance abuse, decisions that students can later regret, but no one had ever drawn a correlation between this research and social media abuse. But what if that correlation actually existed? I wondered – what if adolescents were given a chance to reconsider their decision to post an offensive message on social media – would they change their minds and decide not to post that message?
I decided to use my science and technology skills to come up with a way to test this idea, and created two software systems, Baseline and Rethink. The Baseline System would present test subjects with a series of hurtful messages and measure the adolescents’ willingness to post them on social media. The Rethink Software System would also measure the test subject’s willingness, but if they agreed to post anything hurtful, it would alert them indicating “Hold on – that message that you are about to send, that may be hurtful to others. Are you sure you want to post it?” After a total of 1500 well-controlled and fair trials, I was faced with some stunning results. An incredible 93% of the time, when adolescents were posed with a Rethink alert, they changed their mind, and decided not to post the offensive message! Overall willingness dropped from an initial 71.4% to 4.6%. That was a huge success.
I couldn’t believe it – but this could be the long-term, effective method to stop cyberbullying at the source, before the damage was done! More than ever, I felt like Rebecca, Tyler Clementi, and so many others around the world that had ended their life because of cyberbullying had finally got the justice they deserved. The fact is, cyberbullying is a huge problem. It’s a silent pandemic that has already affected so many, and left ignored, in this social media revolution, with many to come. It’s been an amazing journey to have come one step closer to conquering cyberbullying.
I am working tirelessly on making this a reality so that Rethink works with any social media site (old, new and ones to come) on both web and mobile platforms. I am hoping to get Rethink up and running in the next few months. My high school is already working on adopting Rethink as their new anti-cyberbullying slogan. It’s amazing to know I’ve been able to give back to my community.
Whenever I receive an email saying, “Trisha, thank you so much. I feel safer for my kids to be going on social media now that I know Rethink is going to be implemented,” it really brings joy to my heart. Recently, someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember smiling and saying, “If I’ve made this world a better place in the next 10 years, then I think I’m on the right track.” For now, making the world a better place is stopping cyberbullying – and Rethink has brought me even closer to that reality.