Addressing Discrimination to Prevent Bullying and Cyberbullying
In this line of work I get to hang out with teens all the time, and many of them amaze me with regard to all that they’re getting out of their K-12 school experience. Others, however, make me sad because it seems that what made school awesome for me (being intellectually stimulated, seeing my friends and enjoying their company, and eventually finding self-worth, confidence, and my identity through personal and scholastic growth) has been forced into the shadows for them. Instead, they are preoccupied on a daily basis with worry and fear. Not just at school, but 24-7. And that seems to take precedent over everything else – which, of course, is no way to live.
It’s so frustrating to me because not only do these students struggle now, it’s probable that they will struggle in the future due to what they are missing out on at this crucial stage of their adolescent development. Hopefully, life will open up for them, and things will fall into place, and everything will be amazing for them. But I hate that certain wounds and scars from their school years will persist at least on some level. Especially because much of it seems preventable. Not all of it, but much of it. And so that’s why we are so passionate about identifying and sharing best practices to educators and parents about how they can help.
We believe that schools across our nation should be sacred institutions for learning, where students feel secure and free to focus and interact without worry or fear. We can’t do much about some of the things they worry and are fearful about, but we definitely can do a lot about harassment, hate, bullying, and threats of harm or violence. We have a ton on our plates as educators, but this has to take precedent over other priorities. We’ve told you that around 20% of youth are cyberbullied during their lives, right? Well, we don’t want 20% of the next generation dealing with some or all of the fallout we’ve identified as consequences and outcome for those victimized (lower self-esteem, negative emotions, emotional and psychological issues, delinquency and crime, and suicidal thoughts/attempts). (Side note: if you need any of these articles, please contact us.)
Since you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you are the type of person who will step in when you see overt bullying or cyberbullying, and address it in some form or fashion. Thank you. That needs to happen every time, and we are encouraged to see increasing numbers of school personnel across the nation step up to the proverbial plate on this issue. But what we’d like to see more of is a conscious effort to train and empower educators (administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and support staff) to preempt bullying and cyberbullying by identifying and correcting some of their contributive elements. For example, incidents of hate and harassment are often rooted in discrimination of some sort, and so we believe that some meaningful progress can be made by focusing in on that particular element. By doing so, it may prevent the manifestation of more serious conflicts and outcomes.
School personnel are morally and legally obligated to provide a safe educational environment for all students—one that is free from discrimination. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 requires schools to prevent and address sexual harassment and sex discrimination, and its interpretation has been broadened in the decades since its passage. It is safe to say that any form of discrimination occurring on campus that undermines a child’s ability to feel safe and concentrate on learning must be addressed if it is made known to school officials. Not only is addressing such behavior mandated by law, but not dealing with it could lead to claims of negligence and financial liability (as well as reputational damage) if harm to a student occurred based on discrimination.
We believe that all forms of peer harassment—on a fundamental level—involve some type of discrimination. This could be discrimination based on how someone looks, dresses, acts, speaks, or simply “is.” Youth can take the smallest difference and magnify it to cause drama, to build themselves up while tearing another down, or to indulge an impulse—in other words, just because they feel like it.
A quick story for you - and hopefully you can see the link…. We remember that when we were in school that we couldn’t wear t-shirts with inappropriate slogans or depictions. Occasionally, we heard of another student being sent to the principal’s office and forced to wear the shirt inside out or made to wait until his parents brought another shirt to wear for the rest of the day. This might not seem like that big a deal, but there is logic behind these rules and actions. First, inappropriate content on t-shirts compromises the positive, safe, wholesome atmosphere that schools strive to provide. That might sound idealistic, but part of any school’s mandate is to create and maintain a learning environment that is respectful, inclusive, and supportive – so that all students can have every opportunity to succeed.
Second, such shirts can be offensive and discriminatory to other students and staff at school and therefore infringe upon their civil rights. As a related example, the US Court of Appeals (2009) upheld a Tennessee school’s decision to punish students for wearing Confederate flag T-shirts, agreeing with school administrators that the shirts would cause a substantial disruption among students and staff on campus. Here, concerns of school safety amidst a climate of racial unrest in the community and on campus contributed to the ruling (demonstrating the importance of always taking into account the surrounding context of every situation). Interested readers should also see Barr v. Lafon (2007), summarized here, as it details that schools can act to prevent disturbances and/or violence even without a “substantial disruption.”
Third, they unnecessarily attract negative attention and thereby distract students from learning. Schools, then, can respond to problematic content—or the behavior that creates such content—if its effects are detrimental to their purpose and goals (such as constructing and maintaining a safe school environment!). Such content and behavior start with inappropriate clothing, inappropriate words, and inappropriate actions (like shaming, excluding, and ostracizing), and if not dealt with can subsequently lead to more severe forms of interpersonal harm.
Educators, you have more authority than you think you do as it relates to these sorts of issues. Take the time to address even the most subtle forms of discrimination you see. Set a hard and fast line, and create a climate among everyone at school (adults and teens) demonstrating that “we” are all about inclusivity, mutual respect, kindness, and “bro” moves. Call it out when you see it, and end it one-on-one with the offending student or in front of everyone (if it was an accident or joke that simply wasn’t thought through and can serve as a teachable moment). The hope is that even though you can’t see or measure their value in the present, doing so will cut down on the frequency and scope of bullying and cyberbullying among your students in the future.
Law Enforcement Views of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Earlier this summer, Sameer and I (along with our good friend Joe Schafer), published an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that describes the perceptions and experiences of law enforcement when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting. This article stemmed from my work a few years ago as a Futurist in Residence with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. For the study, we surveyed 979 police officers (336 school resource officers [SROs] and 643 traditional law enforcement officers who were not assigned to schools). We wanted to know what they thought about these high-tech teen problems and to see if there were any differences in perceived roles when comparing SROs with traditional police officers.
Perceptions and Experiences
The vast majority of the SROs (94%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying is a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Similarly, 93% agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. As far as experience, 78% of the SROs reported that they had investigated an average of 16 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 67% of the SROs reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=5 incidents).
Like the SROs, the majority of the traditional police officers (82%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying as a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. Relatively few of the traditional officers had experience investigating cyberbullying and sexting cases. Ten percent reported investigating an average of 2 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 7% reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=3 cases).
The Law Enforcement Role
As a part of this study, we asked officers to rate (on a scale of 0-10, with 10 equaling a “very important/significant role”) the extent to which law enforcement should play a role in ten different cyberbullying scenarios. The scenarios ranged from relatively minor (e.g., “A teacher confiscates a cell phone from a student in class and wants to determine if it contains any information that is in violation of school policy.”) to much more serious (e.g., “A male student receives an email from an unknown person threatening to kill him at school tomorrow.”). In all cases the SROs rated the law enforcement role significantly higher than the traditional law enforcement officers. Clearly, the officers who work in the schools, who most directly confront these problems, see themselves has having a greater responsibility in dealing with the cases than the officers who do not regularly work in schools.
Experience with cyberbullying and sexting cases was also big predictor of officer perceptions about their role. Specifically, officers who had experience with investigating a cyberbullying or sexting case were over 2.5 times as likely to view cyberbullying and sexting as a significant concern for law enforcement, compared to those who had no such experience. For both cyberbullying and sexting, female officers were significantly more likely to report that they strongly agreed that there was an important role in getting involved in the behaviors. Moreover, officers who had children under the age of 18 living at home were significantly more likely to agree that cyberbullying was something law enforcement needed to be involved in dealing with.
Appropriate Law Enforcement Response
Law enforcement officers, especially those who are assigned to a school, will undoubtedly need to become involved in cyberbullying and/or sexting incidents at some point during their careers. They will be most frequently called upon to act after incidents occur within the student body. While most instances of cyberbullying do not warrant the formal intervention and response of law enforcement, some cases do. Even if the cyberbullying behavior doesn’t immediately appear to rise to the level of a crime, officers should use their discretion to handle the situation in a way that is appropriate for the circumstances. For example, a simple discussion of the legal issues involved in cyberbullying may be enough to deter some first-time bullies from future misbehavior. Officers might also talk to parents about their child’s conduct and express to them the seriousness of online harassment. The law enforcement response typically varies based on how the case is discovered, how much harm has occurred, how evidence is collected, who all is involved, and how well-trained the officer may be. All officers, but especially those assigned to a school setting, should educate themselves about the online behaviors of adolescents. They should also seek to respond to misbehaviors in a reasonable and appropriate manner, with the goal of preventing subsequent problem behaviors without imposing unnecessarily harsh disciplines.
Decoding Your Digital Footprint
When individuals are online, they are assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address by their Internet service provider (e.g., Earthlink, AOL, Qwest, Comcast, their school) or cell phone service provider (e.g., Sprint, AT&T, Verizon). This IP address is unique and is bound to a person’s current online session—whether it is via a computer, cell phone, or other portable electronic device. It is continually associated with the data transactions (sending [uploading] and receiving [downloading], interacting, communicating) that are made between one’s device and the rest of the World Wide Web and between one’s social networking site, email, instant message, and chat software and the existing population of Internet users. All data transactions are stamped with one’s IP address and the exact date and time (to the millisecond) that it occurred, and they are kept in log files on computers owned by Internet service providers, cell phone service providers, and content providers (Facebook, Google, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc.).
When attempting to discover the aggressor behind the keyboard, it is vital to know the IP address bound to the malicious message or piece of content. Once that is discovered, the relevant provider can assist school police (or local, state, or federal law enforcement) in identifying the online session in question, which points to the Internet service provider or cell phone service provider through whom the online connection was made, then to the person connected to that specific account (by way of the billing information), and finally to the family member who was logged in at the time the cyberbullying took place.
From School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
Anti-Bullying Youth Rally at Schools
Pep rallies for our middle and high school athletic teams have been going on for decades, and are always great ways to get fired up about the sports season, or the next big game. They serve multiple purposes, all of which are quite important. For one, it really heightens school spirit – and if I am a student I want to be excited about my school, and believe in its chance and ability for success and victory. Second, it’s related to our identity, and our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, if you are a student, you belong to a group – whether you are the Rams, or the Fighting Owls, or the Blugolds, or the Vikings. You’re not alone; you are supporting something and working towards something together, with your peers – people you know and hopefully care about. Third, pep rallies break up the monotony of the school routine, and provide a fun, energetic, and inspiring outlet for everyone. This matters – students need this, on a regular basis.
In recent years, some schools are starting to hold pep rallies to promote academic success (instead of only athletic success), and figure out a creative way to recognize those on the Dean’s List, or Honor Roll, or otherwise doing awesome things towards their academic goals or for the betterment of the community. Well, we are also starting to see a trend where some schools – as spearheaded by motivated and passionate teens – decide to put on an anti-bullying pep rally. Now, this is a bit tricky because everyone will be like, “Why are we being called into the gymnasium (or auditorium)?” “What is going on here?” “Man I hope this doesn’t suck!” And so it will be up to interested students and faculty/staff to come up with a really enjoyable, meaningful experience where you:
1) Talk about how bullying, drama, and other conflicts are specifically affecting your school and the students in it (be real, be honest, and speak from the heart!).
2) Share about how in order for everyone to have a great school year, it has got to stop.
3) Tie it into the fact that everyone is a Greyhound, or Dolphin, or Chippewa (etc.), and how being a part of this group means that we all should act in a certain way (and not be jerks towards others). There is a responsibility to do the right thing, and that most ARE doing the right thing, and we just need everyone else to get on board.
4) Invite a speaker who can do a great job getting everyone to truly understand the pain that bullying/cyberbullying causes, and how we have got to put a stop to it at our school.
5) Invite a DJ who can create a party atmosphere and once again get everyone pumped up about belonging to the school, being a Yankee or Titan or Warrior, and doing the right thing (even when it’s hard).
The objective isn’t to preach, or lecture, or drone on and on with a furrowed brow about how kids shouldn’t bully each other. They know that. The objective is to create a formal event at your school where everyone can get together and rally around a cause and honestly, have a fun and memorable time (with some thought-provoking built in). This requires a delicate balance to the contents, and a strategic approach to the event’s structure, but it is very doable.
Have you done this, or anything like this? Has it been successful? Did it fall short? What did you learn from the experience, and what do you think about the idea and its value in your specific school environment? We really look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
Submit: The Documentary
I just previewed the producer’s cut of a new film on the topic of cyberbullying. Admittedly, I was skeptical at first, because I have seen these kinds of productions before and have either been underwhelmed or downright angry at the way the problem was portrayed. But this effort was different and I think has the potential to do some good.
“Submit: The Documentary” presents the perspectives of many who have experienced the problem of cyberbullying from a variety of viewpoints, including victims and parents, but also educators, researchers, legislators, and policymakers. I was glad to see many familiar cyberbullying prevention and education colleagues prominently featured throughout the film, including my friend and Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja. Together, they present a clear view of the nature of the cyberbullying problem, and offer their insights about why we need to focus more attention on it.
“Submit” includes the requisite stories of those who have been affected most deeply by cyberbullying. Tina Meier, Donna Witsell, John Lowe, and others who lost their children as a result of, at least in part, experience with cyberbullying remind viewers that these behaviors cannot simply be ignored. Their experiences, while thankfully not representative, are instructive. We can learn a lot from what happened to Megan, Hope, and Johanna, and shame on us if we don’t do things better the next time.
As much as it was important to revisit these tragic stories, and even though it was a nice change to see and hear from some of “the experts” who have devoted their careers to this problem, the indisputable stars of this film were the students. They illuminate a reality of cyberbullying that has largely escaped mainstream media. They talk about why they do what they do, and perhaps even more enlightening, why they don’t do what they don’t do. The teens pointedly acknowledge the challenges of dealing with cyberbullying and related behaviors–most of which stem from a general distrust of adults to do anything meaningful to curb the bullying. Indeed, most young people we speak with say the number one reason they don’t confide in adults when confronted with cyberbullying is because they fear it will only make matters worse. Mike Donlin re-affirms this perspective in his remarks that were featured in the film.
As a film intended to capture broad public interest, “Submit” walks a fine-line between presenting a narrative of cyberbullying that is accurate and one that is shocking, fear-mongering, or otherwise “entertaining.” To be a commercial success, especially in the documentary genre, it seems that a film needs to be portentous, provocative, or overly alarmist. Compared to other films that tackle this subject, “Submit” does a better job balancing the hype with the lived-reality of teens in the 21st Century. For example, “Bully,” the 2011 documentary that followed the experiences of five youth and their families, focused so much on the extremity of the problem that while I was left physically hurting for the families featured I was no better prepared to do anything about it. “Bully” left me with the impression that adults are impotent when it comes to stopping bullying because most of the adults included in that film failed in their efforts, or worse, didn’t try.
To some extent, “Submit” begins to lead viewers down a path toward a similar conclusion: that schools, parents, the police, and other adult institutions are incapable at preventing or stopping cyberbullying. But “Submit” doesn’t stop there and carries the discussion forward, presenting some of the emerging evidence about what does work to stop bullying. Among the promising approaches highlighted is to cultivate empathy among students. Not only will empathetic students refrain from bullying others online and off, but they will also stand up for those who are being targeted. By encouraging young people and empowering bystanders to take action, we have a better chance at making strides to reduce this problem. As Sameer states in the film: “Bystanders can be heroes.” We genuinely believe that. Teens see a lot more of what is going on than most adults and they are, as a result, often in the best position to do something about it.
But they shouldn’t have to do it alone, any more than schools should have to respond to bullying by themselves. Bullying, no matter the form, is a community problem which demands a community response. Educators, parents, police officers, faith leaders, community partners, researchers, technology companies, and yes, teens, have the power *together* to adequately prevent and respond to this problem. “Submit” is a solid reminder and all who care about the online lives of adolescents are encouraged to check it out. Trailer here.