Empower Bystanders to Improve School Climate

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on July 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Saad Faruque (Flickr – Creative Commons)

A Leader’s Guide to “Words Wound”

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on May 9, 2014

Words_Wound_Leaders_Guide

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

Whether you teach in the classroom, lead a youth group, or work with teens in another setting, “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral” can help you guide your young people as they learn about cyberbullying, consider their own attitudes and actions (and those of others), and think about ways to delete cyberbullying and make kindness go viral. This FREE leader’s guide can help you use Words Wound to inspire productive discussion, engage teens in reflection, explore useful strategies for dealing with online bullying, and work toward building a culture of greater kindness and respect.

Click here to download in .pdf format

Click here to get the Kindle version

Yik Yak

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 7, 2014

yikyakThere is a new cell phone application that is gaining notoriety at the speed of light among some groups of teens (as well as their teachers and parents). In essence, Yik Yak is pretty much a location-based anonymous Twitter feed. The free app allows users to post anonymous comments that can be viewed by anyone who is within 5 miles of the person who posted it. Or at least the 500 who are the closest. When installing the app, the user gets a warning message stating that the app contains mature material and is therefore only appropriate for users 17 and older. But that hasn’t stopped high school students in some cities from signing up in droves.

One can easily see the attraction for students in using this app: they can post nameless comments that others in their immediate vicinity can see. As such, it is perfectly tailored for a school environment. Often the comments are mundane observations for their classmates about what is going on around them. But they could include harassing messages, answers to tests, sexually explicit comments, hate speech, or bomb threats. Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have sent letters home to parents, educating them about the app, and imploring them to see to it that it is removed from their child’s phone. I appreciate the steps these principals are taking to inform parents, but wonder whether the effort will really result in fewer students using it.

Alternative to Facebook?

Teens are hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents. Facebook is still by far the most popular social media environment for teens, but they don’t seem to visit the site as frequently, or for as long, as they once did. One reason for that is the fact that most parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers) are on Facebook and can therefore see much of what teens are posting. So they are looking for an alternative place to hang out and communicate without adults looking over their virtual shoulders. Yik Yak has apparently served that purpose for some.

We were first alerted to the app a couple of weeks ago when we received a report through our website encouraging us to investigate it: “The amount of hateful comments is basically every other comment. It is too much to even report. Cyberbullying is already a huge problem today and the last thing we need is an anonymous app that allows one to do that. Soon Facebook, twitter, and other social medias will be the least of our worries when it comes to cyberbullying and suicide.”

We get these kinds of reports frequently and often the new app that is mentioned disappears before it can gain national attention. Something was different with this app. In just the last week or so, quite a few people have contacted us with questions about how to protect themselves and their schools from its potential wrath. Because cell phone apps and online environments are constantly changing, however, we suggest that, instead of focusing on banning a specific site or particular piece of technology, parents and educators should work to instill good values in their children and students so that they choose not to use them in ways that cause harm. Attacking particular applications to stop cyberbullying is a lot like trying to win a decent prize at the carnival by playing that whack-a-mole game. The odds are stacked against you. The target always shifts.

It’s Probably Not As Bad As We Think

Before getting too worked up about this latest “threat,” it is important that we keep some perspective. First of all, Yik Yak’s reach is still extremely small with only a couple hundred thousand users (compared to over 30 million on another popular and fear-inducing app: Snapchat). Second, we know from more than a decade’s worth of research that most teens are not misusing technology or mistreating others while online. Snapchat, for example gained infamy about a year ago as the “sexting app” because the images taken and sent using the app seemed to disappear after 10 seconds. Most teens realize that even though the image may no longer be visible on the 5-inch screen in front of them, it doesn’t mean it is really completely gone (despite implicit promises from the app itself). The vast majority of teens use Snapchat to send goofy, yet mostly harmless, selfie pictures to their friends and even though some will misuse it, they are in the minority.

The same is likely true for new apps like Yik Yak. Sure, the anonymous nature of the posts may embolden users to let down their guard and post things they normally wouldn’t say in a face-to-face interaction. But again, most teens are savvy enough at this point to realize that eventually it could come back around to them. In fact, there was already at least one example of a student being arrested for what was posted on the app. Moreover, unlike some sites and apps, it seems that the creators of Yik Yak are being responsive to the concerns of adults. According to the Chicago Tribune, company officials have agreed to disable the app in the Chicago area while schools attempt to get a handle on the significant problems created by it.

Time will tell whether Yik Yak will really catch on among teens (or the adults who were its original intended audience). One thing is for certain: this won’t be the last time we hear about an app that is creating problems among students in schools.

Restorative Group Conferencing and Sexting: Repairing Harm in Wright County

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 4, 2014

sexting_rjEditor’s note: This is a guest post written by Nancy Riestenberg, who works for the Minnesota Department of Education. In it, she discusses an innovative approach used to address the harm that results from sexting images that are distributed beyond the originally intended recipient.

Nancy Riestenberg
School Climate Specialist, Minnesota Department of Education

Three years ago, in a middle school in Wright County, Minnesota, students discovered sexually explicit pictures of a student on the cell phone of her boyfriend.  The students ran to the bathroom with the cell phone and sent the pictures on to eight other students.  By the time the adults in the school discovered them, many student cell phones had received the pictures. The administration asked the school resource officer from the Sheriff’s Office to investigate.  Potentially many students could be charged with sending or receiving sexually explicit pictures of a minor, a felony offense.  What was the County Attorney going to do?

Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily thought cell phones.  If the photo is of a child under the age of 18, the photo could be considered child pornography.  Possession and dissemination of child pornography is a felony and could carry a sentence of one year or more in jail and a minimum $3000 fine or both.  Collateral consequences of a felony on a student’s record could include being barred from certain jobs, entering the military and being accepted to college or university.

As a result of this case, the Court Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, and the County Attorney Office collaborated with the school district to develop the process currently used to handle sexting cases in Wright County. The process uses community conferencing, diversion and charging based on facts of the cases. The Restorative Justice Agent works with the County Attorney, school resource officer and school administrator to determine the proper approach in each case.

Restorative group conferencing, like victim offender dialogues and circles are a face to face communication processed facilitated by a trained adult, which brings together the persons harmed, the person who did the harm and other affected parties to engage in dialogue about a specific offence or rule violation. The facilitator usually meets with or talks to participants prior to bringing everyone together, ‘so they will know what to expect’ in the conference. The Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota describes process:

The focus of the encounter nearly always involves naming what happened, identifying its impact, and coming to some common understanding, often including reaching agreement as to how any resultant harm will be repaired. Use of these processes can take place at any point in the justice process, including pre-arrest, pre-court referral, pre-sentencing, or post-sentencing and even during incarceration.  (Umbreit, et. al, 2006).

In this incident, the decision was made to divert the case to the Wright County Restorative Justice Agent, who set up a restorative group conference to address and repair the harm. In addition to the students, parents of each student participated in the conference as well as the county attorney, the investigating officer, the school administrators and teachers—almost 40 people total.  Some parents were initially angry that their child was participating in the conference since they had not made the pictures, but just sent on what they had received.  It was the story of the girl who made the pictures that helped clarify the harm.  She thought the pictures were just between her and her boyfriend, but now, she was the one who would live with the consequence of the pictures being forever floating on the Internet.

The conference results in an agreement that is made thorough consensus and all participants sign it. In addition to a three day suspension that was imposed before the conference, the students agreed to apologies, to write a written report on the risks and dangers of sending or receiving child pornography and all agreed to immediately report to the school administration or the SRO any sexually explicit pictures they might receive in the future or believe are circulating. The parents agreed to more closely monitor their child’s cell phone and internet use. The school district and county probation agreed to develop a presentation for parents as well as one for all students in the district with age appropriate lessons on sexting, legal and school consequences, and cyber literacy. Everyone signed the agreement. The county attorney agreed to a stay of adjudication or dismissal of charges if the agreement terms were met.

This incident and terms of the conferencing agreement resulted in the development of a county-wide protocol for both prevention education and investigation of sexting incidents.

1.    County-wide, age appropriate education. Presentations on sexting, the law and its consequences are presented at the middle and high school levels.  Presenters include a county probation office, a school social worker, county social worker and the restorative justice agent. Some schools developed ad campaigns designed by the students to educate their peers and parents.  Presentations have also been made to parent groups.

2.    Policy regarding cell phones and investigations.  School policy regarding cell phones bans them in class; if a phone is found to have sexually explicit pictures on it, the Sherriff’s deputy takes the phone, conducts an investigating, and sends the investigation to the Sherriff’s office.  The pictures are captured as evidence.  The Deputy deletes the pictures.

3.    Diversion or charges.  The sergeant in charge of the juvenile and sexual predator unit recommends diversion or charges to the County Attorney. Diverted cases go to the Restorative Justice Agent for conferencing. A student is considered for diversion if he/she has no prior offenses, is not on probation, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. If a student receives an image and deletes it, the sheriff’s deputy will speak with the student and the parents, giving information on how to make cell phones more secure from such images.

Since the first case, there have been over 200 students involved in sexting investigations.  All but a few were handled through a diversion process and many of the diversions are conducted as a community conference. Brian Stoll, Wright County Probation Officer presented the following reasons why the process works:

  • It gives all those involved a chance to provide input, including school officials;
  • It allows the perpetrator/victim to accept responsibility, but also to acknowledge the harm they experienced; and
  • It holds individuals accountable without damaging his/her future.

In the three years that the educational and restorative program has been implemented, the seriousness of the cases, the number of youth involved in a case and number of referrals has gone down.  “In the early cases,” said Eric Leander, Sergeant in charge of the Juvenile and Sexual Predator Unit, “we saw a lot of graphic video and close ups of body parts.  Now, there are no videos and much less explicit pictures of the body.”

“Many of the cases now are between boyfriend and girlfriend, rather than the 10 to 15 person cases we started with,” reported Karen Determan, the Restorative Justice Agent, “and the images have not gone much past the two of them.” “Now students tell teachers or the SRO’s or administrators that they have seen or heard about sexting, so we get to stop the images before they get too far,” said Jeff Scherber, a middle school principal. “Students report even if they just heard about an image or if it has not happened in school.  And the parents have been great supporters of our work.  It used to be that parents would say, ‘my kid, my phone.’  We don’t hear that any more.  They support our policy.”

The goals of the process include educating both the juveniles and the parents, attempting to repair the harm done, help all participants to understand the collateral consequences of sexting, and to deter further incidents.  Most importantly, the process helps to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.

References:

Umbreit, M.S., Vos, B, and Coates, R.B. Restorative Justice Dialogue: Evidence-based Practice. Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota, 2006.

Wright County Court Services, www.co.wright.mn.us. Michael J. MacMillan, Director mike.macmillan@co.wright.mn.us; Brian Stoll, Probation Officer, Brian.Stoll@co.wright.mn.us.

Law Enforcement Involvement in Bullying Incidents: Different Rules and Roles

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on January 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Different Roles and Responsibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coordinated Community Response

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

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

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

Image credit: Gazzette