Deterring Teen Bullying: Dos and Don’ts
There’s been a lot of interest lately in passing new bullying and cyberbullying laws. The pressure to pursue these provisions seems to come from the idea that the threat of harsher penalties will deter teens from bullying others. But will they? Deterrence theory is a very popular philosophy within the criminal justice system, and as such serves as the basis for many policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and “three strikes” laws). The basic premise is simple: humans are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of any behavior and will ultimately act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rational people will therefore be more likely to refrain from deviance when the costs (severe punishment) are increased.
The problem with this perspective is that adolescent brains haven’t yet fully developed to the point where we can assume rationality in the face of unknown or unlikely consequences. Moreover, we often focus too much on formal punishment as a means to compel compliance instead of recognizing other powerful forces that may be even more effective. So what can be done to deter teens from bullying others? Below I offer some basic bullying deterrence dos and don’ts.
Increase formal sanctions. As noted above, a lot of people have been pushing for increased criminal penalties to be leveled against those who participate in bullying. Bills have been passed or proposed in most states (see our summary here) even while legislation has been languishing at the federal level for almost 5 years. New laws that clarify and support the roles of educators in responding to bullying are helpful, but those that seek to further criminalize are not likely to be effective at preventing the behaviors.
As I have stated before, it is unlikely that new criminal laws will result in more teens being deterred from engaging in bullying. Those who were dissuaded before will still be, but the added threat of increased legal punishment isn’t likely to prevent additional people from participating. The problem is that most teens (and many adults for that matter) simply don’t stop to consider the possible costs prior to participating in a behavior (especially possible criminal consequences). They are usually absorbed in the moment and aren’t thinking about what could happen if they are caught. Plus, the odds are that they won’t be caught (or significantly punished).
Enact zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require school administrators to apply a specific, generally severe sanction (often suspension or even expulsion) to a student who is found to have participated in some proscribed behavior. These policies were most often originally focused on curbing weapon and drug possession at school, but in recent years they have been expanded to include other forms of violence and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, “zero tolerance” is a fine idea in theory. Educators do want to clearly communicate that they have zero tolerance for weapons or drugs or bullying in their schools and that those who violate this standard are certain to be punished. The problem is that these policies, by definition, do not allow educators to use their discretion to handle situations outside the letter of the policy. Bullying is largely a relationship problem, and educators, working with parents, need to use their knowledge of the situation to apply a reasonable sanction that is more uniquely designed to address the particular problem at hand. One-size-fits-all responses frequently fall short in issues involving teens.
Utilize public shaming. Shame is a powerful force that can be used to encourage conformity and compliance. But when misused, it can result in the exact opposite response. Historically, societies have used shame to induce guilt among those who behave in ways that are counter to societal norms. Shaming can also have the unintended side effect of severing the emotional bond between the person(s) doing the shaming and the one being shamed.
Australian criminologist John Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming: disintegrative (or stigmatizing) and reintegrative. Disintegrative shaming results when society identifies a person as deviant, and figuratively (or even literally) expels that person from the conforming group. Reintegrative shaming occurs when society condemns the behavior, but not the person. In this case we avoid labeling someone “a bully” but instead refer to the specific bullying behaviors that need to stop. It is not the child we are convicting, but their behavior. Even when done with the best intentions in mind, public shaming is too risky when applied to adolescents whose self-esteem is generally under-developed and fragile.
There have been quite a few recent examples of parents (or educators – see this) publicly shaming their kids to send them (and others) a message about the wrongfulness of their behavior. This approach is misplaced. In my view, parents who publicly shame their kids are doing so primarily because they themselves felt publicly humiliated by the actions of their children and so they feel the need to prove that they are “good” parents by punishing in a public way. While this might seem like a creative method to address the behavior, I believe it could do more harm than good. The importance of the parent-child emotional bond cannot be overstressed, and permanent damage could be done. Praise publicly, punish privately.
Give students a stake in conformity. The threat of punishment only works if someone has something of value in their life that they would put at risk of losing if punished. For example, earning a bad grade only hurts if a student cares about good grades or is aiming for college or a scholarship. After-school detention is most powerful when a student has something else they really like to do after school that they would miss out on (such as an extra-curricular activity). Taking this a step further, if a man is unemployed, homeless, and broke, the threat of brief incarceration isn’t really enough to stop him from misbehaving. At least in jail he will be given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. As Bob Dylan famously sang, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The best thing we can do for students to deter them from mistreating others is to get them involved in prosocial activities that they really enjoy so that the threat of school sanction or parental punishment holds weight.
Moreover, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to have an effect. For instance, at least as of right now, I have a perfectly clean driving record. I have never been pulled over for any moving violation in over 20 years of driving [knocks on wood]. As much as the threat of receiving a modest monetary fine deters me from speeding, my desire to keep my record unblemished is an even stronger incentive, at least for me.
Connect and interact. Another reason many people refrain from misbehavior is because they don’t want to disappoint the people in their lives that they care about. Prevention is all about relationships. Inasmuch as many teens are not deterred by the threat of formal punishment, they are dissuaded from participation in behaviors that they know their friends, parents, or other valued adults would frown upon. When teens are emotionally attached or socially bonded to others, they internalize their norms and values and do not want to disappoint them by behaving in a way that is contradictory to those principles.
The concept of virtual supervision demonstrates that kids will behave in ways that are consistent with adults they value and respect, even when those valued others are not directly supervising them. For example, if I really value my relationship with my mom, and I know that she would be disappointed in me if she knew that I bullied someone, then I am less likely to bully others, even in situations where she is not present because I am considering how mom might feel if she found out about my behavior. Of course this only works if I have a really great relationship with mom and don’t want to damage that relationship by disappointing her. So the key is developing strong relationships with kids.
And this powerful effect can also work with others who work with young people (educators, church leaders, and law enforcement officers, to name a few). As an example, one time when I was in high school, I drove my ATV across town to some community event. Several minutes after I got there, one of the local police officers arrived and immediately started chewing me out for driving too fast on the city streets. He was yelling at me, saying that after he saw me he had gone to my house and was waiting for me and was going to give me a speeding ticket! For the record, I really didn’t think I was going that fast. But nonetheless, I was devastated. I was embarrassed and upset that I had disappointed him – not just because he was a police officer, or that he was threatening to give me a ticket, but because he had been my hockey coach the year prior and I had a great relationship with him. I felt terrible. In the end, he didn’t give me a ticket, but from then on I drove very slowly when navigating the city streets on my ATV.
It was a very powerful experience that others can learn from. Take the time to develop a positive relationship with your kids and students. For decades we have known the power of spending just a bit of regular time with students (e.g., 2 minutes a day for 10 days in a row). Learn their names. Give them high-fives as they come off the bus. Show them that you care – because we know you do. It can make all the difference.
Develop a positive school climate. A positive school climate is one that stimulates and encourages respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. Research consistently demonstrates that the more positive the climate of the school is, the fewer problems there are with bullying (and cyberbullying). A sense of collective concern is cultivated where students just seem to look out for each other more and believe that the adults in the school are genuinely there to help.
Since schools with better climates overall have fewer bullying incidents, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges where bullying is something that just doesn’t happen here. If it does, it is addressed and stopped immediately. Students see that and are less inclined to resort to bullying in cases of conflict.
Deterring detrimental behaviors in a society requires more than just passing a new law or cranking up the consequences in existing laws. Considerate understanding of the needs and desires of teens will help us to design an incentive structure that is more likely to be effective. The simple fact is that some teens will not be deterred in their behaviors by the threat of any formal, criminal punishment, no matter how severe it may be. But these same youth could be prevented from bullying others if they have caring relationships with others or are involved in activities that they value.
Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response
A new video has surfaced showing a bullying incident in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The video shows 14-year-old high school freshman Kobe Nelson being pushed around by a classmate while a throng of onlookers heckle and encourage the two to fight. Several of the students can be seen recording the situation on their cell phones. It appears from the video that Kobe is simply trying to walk away, but the aggressor keeps pulling him back into the fray. Eventually Kobe is able to escape, but is later contacted by a police officer assigned to the school who inquires about the fight. He was taken to the office where he was informed that he was being suspended for two days for fighting. Presumably the other student involved was also suspended, but his sanction has not been discussed publicly.
There is sadly nothing all that special or unique about this kind of incident – fights happen in schools every day, and near-misses like this are without a doubt even more frequent. According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 12% of high school students had been involved in a fight at school in 2011. Overall, these numbers have been dropping since the mid-1990s, but still remain at levels of concern. There are no data available that quantifies the number of times students walk away, as Kobe did on that day.
Kobe protested his suspension, arguing that he didn’t do anything wrong. When his father, Tommy Purvis, learned about the video and watched it, it was clear that Kobe’s description of the incident was accurate – he didn’t do anything wrong. Mr. Purvis approached school officials with the video but they reportedly refused to watch it, saying that they already knew what had happened. The police officer assigned to the high school also apparently mocked Kobe, telling him that he should “bulk up” so he wouldn’t make for such an easy target. Perhaps this was an ill-conceived attempt by the officer to lighten things up. But flippant responses like this help explain why less than 30% of the students in our most recent survey (October, 2013) told an adult about their experience with bullying. Being dissatisfied with the school and law enforcement response, Mr. Purvis and his son went public with the incident by posting the story, and video, online.
The Power of Video Evidence
Video has always served as valuable evidence to enable investigators to see exactly the extent of one’s involvement in a criminal incident. Remember back in 2008 when several girls lured 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay into one of their homes for the purpose of beating her up? The motive for the assault seemed to have been linked to some trash-talking Victoria was doing on MySpace. The assault was premeditated for the purpose of teaching her a lesson and was deliberately perpetrated in front of several cell phone cameras so that the incident could be posted on MySpace and YouTube. Several girls were charged criminally and the chief offender, 17-year-old Brittini Hardcastle, served 15 days in jail. The assault was immortalized online and in a 2011 Lifetime movie. There are no shortage of similar squabbles that went viral. Publicity abounds when cruelty is captured in its raw and unedited form. Indeed, one wonders if Rodney King would be a household name today if not for the video that emerged of his beating.
With this in mind, should we encourage bystanders to record incidents of bullying when they witness it so that adults charged with investigating can see exactly what happened? We already encourage students to keep all evidence of cyberbullying, and so reminding and allowing them to document face-to-face incidents like this can help adults sort through the details of what happened so that offending parties can be held accountable. Of course, this could be abused. There is a big difference between the teen who gleefully records an incident for the purpose of later public posting and ridicule, and the teen who quietly gathers evidence to take to the authorities. The latter might be appropriate while the former most certainly is not (and may warrant punishment in its own right).
It is important to remember, too, that video recordings often only capture a snippet of a larger incident. In Kobe’s video, we see less than 90 seconds of the interaction and have no idea what Kobe might have said or done to possibly instigate the altercation. There are always multiple sides to any story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more details emerged in this case. That said, one can only examine the evidence that is available, and video should always be used in combination with eyewitness interviews to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.
I worry, however, that had it not been for the video evidence, Kobe would have had a harder time substantiating the facts of the incident. Sure, maybe a few of his friends would have stepped up and offered support for his version of the events, but no doubt other observers would have contradicted those and the school would have been forced to default to offsetting penalties (punishment for both). And what kind of message does that send?
With Cyberbullying, There Is Always Evidence
One of the defining characteristics of cyberbullying is that there is always evidence. Whether it is a text message, Facebook post, Instagram picture, tweet, or video, it is important to continually remind those who are being targeted to preserve that evidence. With face-to-face bullying it is often one person’s word against another. Digital evidence helps to clarify who said what and when.
I was talking with a school resource officer in Wisconsin last spring about an incident where a student came up to him after school and said she was receiving mean text messages. The officer asked the student to bring in a copy of the messages for him to review. The next day this student brought a printed-out copy of the messages, which included over two pages of content. The problem was that just about every other message had been blocked out with a black Sharpie. When the officer questioned the student about the redacted messages, the student responded “Well…those are my texts to her, and those aren’t important.” Of course they are important! Adults who investigate bullying incidents need to be able to see all of the information surrounding the incident, so they can respond appropriately given all of the available facts.
School and law enforcement officials need to thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying so that those responsible can be properly disciplined. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. First of all, many law enforcement officers lack good training on how to handle bullying (especially cyberbullying). And even though school administrators are generally much better at handling these kinds of incidents, they are stretched so thin with declining budgets and increasing mandated responsibilities that they often do not have enough time to adequately investigate these reports. So they triage them as best they can, but sometimes mistakes are made. Ultimately, it is up to everyone who witnesses bullying incidents to step up and report what they saw so that the correct and appropriate action can be taken.
Combating Bullying During Kindness Week
In my line of work, I have the amazing opportunity to meet incredibly passionate educators who care so much about students – and do all they can to create and maintain positive climates in which those students can thrive. I’ve known Becky Nahrebeski, a 9th grade Global teacher, for a few years now, and finally had a chance to be a part of a Kindness Week she and her colleagues planned and put together in October. We are all about sharing success stories that encourage other administrators and teachers that bullying and cyberbullying can truly be combatted and addressed in creative and meaningful ways that make a real difference. It does take a lot of work, but it is so worth it when you get to see the results. I’ve asked Becky to share with our readers about the amazing things they’ve done (and are doing), and her thoughts are below:
Hamburg Central School District is a suburban district about 10 miles south of Buffalo, NY. We have a student body of roughly 3700 students K-12. We are a very high-achieving district. We are always ranked in the top 15 school districts for Western New York. We are ranked 81 in New York State and we are in the top 3% (ranked 682 out of 24,000) of schools nationwide and are a Silver Award winner according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 school rankings. We have amazing students that, after graduation, make us proud. We have dedicated teachers that love what they do. We have a supportive administration that has the best interest of the students at heart. We have fantastic parents that work with us and support us in any way they can. We have an unbelievable community that stands behind us and helps out wherever they can. Despite all of these fantastic parts working together, we still have students that hurt one another through bullying and cyberbullying.
We, as a district, refuse to ignore this issue. In our district, we have a DASA (Dignity for All Students) committee comprised of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, a teacher, and an administrator to deal specifically with bullying. This committee was started in preparation for the passage of New York State legislation (the DASA Act), and since 2011, we have been working on going through bullying reports to identify “hot spots” and determine our prevention efforts. We have attended countless conferences where we learn the latest research on what is happening. We educate parents, staff, students, and even our bus company on some of the best practices in bullying prevention. We meet monthly to stay on top of everything going on in the district.
One of our most esteemed achievements was the planning of an anti-bullying week for our district K-12. It was a massive undertaking, but well worth the hours we put in planning it. Our preparation leading up to this week included a contest entitled “Create a Culture of Kindness.” Students K-12 could enter the contest and compete in different categories. For example, they could write a poem, essay, or song. They could create an anti-bullying poster or public-service announcement video. The goal was for them to take their skillsets and talents and apply them to help transform our school communities by making it cool to care about others. The response we received was truly incredible. It is amazing how perceptive and intelligent our students are on the issue of bullying. It also became clear that it was an issue that our students cared deeply about, as was evident in some of their project submissions. We had well over 100 submissions and it was very emotional and difficult to choose our winners. If you ever are curious how deeply students care about the issue of bullying, put together a contest and you will see how affected your student population is.
Our week began on Monday with a staff meeting with Dr. Hinduja. He trained our staff and shared with us important information about school policy and the best prevention and response strategies that have evolved, and how all stakeholders must play a role. On Monday evening, we held a Youth Rally. We had all our contest entries displayed for everyone to see. We had vendor tables set up in our cafeteria for all to peruse. Attendees had an opportunity to create a link in our chain against bullying. Our band played, and our cheerleaders cheered, and it was a very festive and fun environment with snacks and beverages and a celebration of our students’ efforts! We announced all of our contest winners right at the beginning of the evening. Then we announced our guest speaker, Dr. Hinduja, who spoke to our attendees about technology and role of the parents in helping schools to combat the bullying/cyberbullying problem. He also allowed time for Q&A, which was really valuable to our parents.
On Tuesday, we started our day with a survey we gave to all of our students in grades 6-12. We wanted to make sure we could gauge how well all of our efforts were working throughout the course of this year. We plan on doing a post survey later this year to compare our data. All of the questions from our survey came from Dr. Hinduja’s book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard. Then, Dr. Hinduja spoke to our middle school and high school students. He was dynamic and the kids really got a lot out of his presentation. He addressed everything from being smart online, protecting yourself by keeping your information locked down, and the impacts that bad decisions can have on your life. Students raved about how everything he discussed with them applies directly to them right now. They took a lot away from his presentation.
Students also watched the documentary “Bully.” This was a tremendous empathy-building opportunity. Students really got a strong message about not bullying and also to be a bystander that acts (upstander). They felt such sadness for the kids that were impacted by the bullying and many felt they would not allow something like that to occur in our schools. Students did debriefing activities for both of these activities where they had some discussion, some writing opportunities. They also made Sorry Slips, and participated in a Paperclip Pledge. A Sorry Slip is a slip of paper on which students can anonymously apologize for something they feel bad about. A Paperclip Pledge is where students vow to not bully, and to step in if someone is bullying. They get a paperclip with a ribbon and make a chain of paperclips, which then serves as a visual reminder of their promise. In all, it was a fantastic day.
On Wednesday, Dr. Hinduja, our high school drama club, and our DASA team traveled to all four of our elementary buildings. Dr. Hinduja spoke twice to each building to students grouped K-2 and again to students in grades 3-5. He was great even with these age groups and delivered a message that they related to. Opposite him, our HS drama club put on a performance of a skit they wrote and answered questions that they students had. Then each school had their own plan for the rest of the day. Throughout the rest of the week, our schools did follow-up activities that included pep rallies, classroom activities, and the hanging of visual reminders around the schools. One common thread in all of our elementary buildings was a Create a Culture of Kindness quilt. Each student created their own square by drawing or writing a message they got from the day. The squares were then put together to form quilts. It remains an awesome visual left over from our week.
The work in preparing for this week was intense, stressful, and at times, all-encompassing, but well worth every minute put into it. Our students raved about the week and asked that we “do stuff like that more often.” They made it clear that they don’t want our efforts to end there. As such, we have some follow-up activities loosely planned out for the spring. We are hoping to bring in a speaker for a one-hour assembly that can speak on the merits of being an upstander, and give our students some great ways to “step in” if they see an instance of bullying. We are also working on putting together a panel of students to share with our teachers what is really going on in our schools. We are also hoping to create a Public Service Announcement for our community. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we remain inspired based on all of the progress we’ve made and interest we’ve received! In closing, I want to share the primary message we received from our students: they want to talk about these types of issues; they want to work with the adults in preventing instances of bullying!
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.