Student Advisory Boards Can Inform Bullying Policies and Prevention
Whenever I visit schools to give a cyberbullying assembly or presentation to parents in the community, I am also typically asked to sit down and chat with the administrators about the policies and programs they have in place. Here, they let me know what they have been doing to identify, address, and prevent teen technology misuse, and then detail some of the struggles that they have faced – like how to talk about sexting without sounding irrelevant, how to develop penalties for rule-breaking that can be consistently enforced and supported by all, and how to strategically encourage kindness and peer respect in a compelling way. Apart from sharing with them evolving best practices, I also encourage them to invite students to the table when determining what can and should be done.
Students should always feel that they have a voice at school. This means that their input on school activities, curriculum, teaching styles, field trips, behavioral issues on campus, and other matters is valued and taken into consideration. I strongly believe that the relevant decision makers at each school should regularly meet with student leaders or even consider convening a “Student Advisory Board” comprised of teens who want to get involved in the governance of their school. In this setting, administrators should solicit and take student perspectives into account when figuring out strategies and solutions, and to continually welcome their thoughts and input on these matters.
Students know — better than anyone else — what devices, programs, or sites are being embraced and exploited by their peer group. They can clue you in to the latest popular social media apps that have gained a lot of traction on campus, the newest interactive software being exploited, and the hottest technology tools (along with all of their capabilities). Students can then inform adults about some of the problems they have seen online among their friends – such as cyberbullying, sexting, anonymous threats, and major digital reputation issues. It is crucial to create a non-judgmental and safe environment in which you regularly invite both older and younger student leaders to candidly provide feedback on the tech-related misbehaviors they see and hear about (or even participate in).
Get their “insider” perspective. You will then be better able to determine the comprehensiveness of your policy, its deterrent value among students (if any), how consistently it is enforced, and whether it is respected. Since the majority of students use technology safely and responsibly – and are often afforded certain device privileges on campus – they wouldn’t want that access taken away from them. Therefore, it is in their best interest to help adults in identifying problem areas and getting them resolved so that the misbehavior of one or two students doesn’t ruin it for everyone else.
As an added benefit, students who are involved in reviewing the bullying policies cannot say that they “didn’t know” that what they were doing was wrong, and using students to help define the behaviors (and even possible penalties for breaking the rules) will ensure that the policies are up to date and applicable to contemporary concerns. Plus, if students are a part of policy development, they have a stake in the policies’ successful implementation. When new or revised policies are developed, use students to help get the word out. For example, the Student Advisory Board could go into individual classes for a few minutes to talk about the purpose of new policies, share it over the morning or afternoon announcements, or write about it for the school paper, website, or yearbook. The more you educate students about potential issues and concerns, the more willing they are to take ownership of reasonable policies to prevent the misuse of technology.
It is also a good idea to give youth an opportunity to offer constructive criticism on the wording of your formal rules, the informal and formal penalties tied to various transgressions, and the curricula and related programming you have in place (or are considering). Allow them to articulate their thoughts and suggestions about what they believe will work to change prevailing mentalities across campus, and meaningfully promote a school climate that is all about appropriate and responsible behaviors (at school and online). Truly, they will let you know what they think is “lame” and what they think will actually succeed.
Listen to students. The last thing you want to do is to waste time, effort, and resources on a creative initiative the adults thought was a fantastic idea, but ends up as a complete and utter FAIL. To be honest, that will do more bad than good by reaffirming student suspicion that the school is oblivious and completely out of the loop. Since teens are fully immersed in all things technological and social, it is crucial to enlist their help in determining how best the school can equip the student body with the skills and knowledge to be great digital citizens, how best to pitch responsible online behavior as “cool” and “what we do around here,” and how best to get everyone on board.
ITO Club – Student Leaders Transforming School Climate to Prevent Bullying
For a few years now, I have admired the leadership and initiative of Ms. Geraldine Johnson, Bullying Prevention Coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley School District. She stands out in my mind as one of the most caring youth workers I have ever known, and it is so inspiring to see the love she has for her students and the love her students have for her. Together, they have proactively sought to combat bullying and create an environment in which kindness, peer respect, and acceptance reign supreme. Central to this effort is their ITO Club, which we featured in our new cyberbullying book for teens entitled “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.” ITO stands for “It Takes One” – and that message is the primary thread in the fabric of their programming to really make a difference and transform their school community for good. Here is her story:
In my role as a behavior specialist and special educator for over 30 years, I have done many social skill lessons and bullying prevention lessons that involve role-play with students of all ages. During these discussions and role-plays I found that most students do not agree with the mistreatment of their peers, but do not always know what to do about it. I discovered that – just like when teaching academics – the more we teach students how and what to do, the more likely they are to do it! I decided that in order to get students to support each and to be active bystanders, they need to be taught explicitly what to do.
Most students are able to express how uncomfortable the unkind behaviors make them feel, but do not know how to respond. That is what motivated me to start the ITO (It Takes One) Club – to teach the students that behavior –good and bad – is contagious, and if one person stands up for someone who is being treated unkindly, others will follow. I wanted it to be “popular” and “cool” to be kind. I wanted to have a place for students to learn how to support each other in fun, supportive, and creative ways. ITO has become much more than that…. It has become not only a club, but a place for students to learn to support each other, a major change agent. Students are spreading the message, “It takes one. Be one.” And “It takes one. I am one.” The emphasis of the club has become not only how to support someone who is being treated in an unkind way, but also how to be pro-active and prevent incidents from happening. Students are being reinforced for “being the change.” Our goal is to have all students at CV know that if something unkind is done to them, there will be staff and students there to support them.
Implementing ITO in our schools requires a lot of planning, cooperation, and passion from students and adults. Without the support and cooperation from school and district administration, the ITO program would not be able to thrive. Fortunately, our principals, Mr. Rob Martin (co-advisor) and Ms. Judy Baumgardner are passionate about the program and willing to devote time and energy into making it work. Additionally, Mr. Martin and Ms. Baumgardner model for parents, students, and staff what “treating others with respect” looks like on a daily basis. Being an ITO advisor requires a major time commitment in order to be available to students, to assess the effects of the program, to do research, and to attend club activities and meetings. Besides having a passion for the mission, advisors must also enjoy working with adolescents, knowing when to step back and let students take the lead. Advisors must also be able to encourage students not to be defeated by the naysayers and to keep things positive while prioritizing and assessing our efforts.
Students who lead the club must also model the respectful behaviors we are trying to spread. Our student leaders go through process which includes filling out an application, writing an essay, teacher evaluation, and formal interviews with current ITO leaders and advisors. We have learned that involving students in every level of the process is an important component to making ITO successful. The student leaders become our “eyes and ears” of the school, not about specific behaviors or incidents, but about what students are thinking and what will work to get the message across to them. We have found that both students and staff are much more receptive to information if it comes from students themselves. Our student leaders give our adult bullying prevention team feedback on class meetings and activities in order to make information relevant and student-friendly.
Because our student leaders have such an important voice in planning and intervention, it is also very important that our leaders are educated on the most up-to-date research-based information on bullying prevention and school climate. To accomplish this, we do formal training with our student leaders, using such resources as Dr. Sameer Hinduja’s work and resources, combined with the “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.” As a certified Olweus trainer, I bring the most up-to- date information to the leaders so they can be confident in their efforts to spread the word in their presentations, club activities, and in social media. Student leaders must also learn to work as a team and compromise on projects. Our eventual goal is to add the ITO program to the already existing bullying prevention programs in all levels, from elementary to secondary, so every student can benefit from ITO.
Our student leaders meet with us bi- weekly to plan club meetings. The club meetings, also bi-weekly, include activities such as guest speakers, parties, team building activities, socials, and community events. Our leaders use social media to get the word out about meetings. All students are invited to the club activities. We put great effort into getting students from different groups, clubs, and interests to join us. An anonymous referral system that is available to all students, staff and parents is also used to find students who need extra support and possibly intervention. This has helped us to identify teens who have been marginalized for some reason or another, but are incredibly amazing people and who need to get plugged in. Finally, students who are inspired to step up and make a positive change here at our school are recognized and commended by the staff and administration.
In my thirty-plus years as an educator, being the creator and advisor for the ITO program has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Although there have been challenges, I am reminded on a daily basis how these students are making a positive change and affecting the lives of so many in our school and community.
Here are some additional perspectives from students I met while working with Geraldine:
ITO (It Takes One) is an outlet for some, and a safe place for others. ITO for me was both but most importantly it was a club that I could express my passion for preventing something so awful in our school. It has given me more opportunities than ever imagined and a new appreciation for teamwork and compromise. ITO has taught me to still believe in the good hearts of high school students but always be aware that everyone isn’t as kind- hearted, but you always have a friend in this club. Personally, this club has taught me invaluable life lessons and I have met life changing people along the way. My personal mission statement is that it is by far “more cool” to be the nice kid and be the kid to stand up for someone rather than turning a shoulder or even engaging in the action. Being nice will be the trait to take you places in this world.
~ Dana Basehore
As a senior leader for ITO (It Takes One) Club, I advise our media relations within the school and throughout social media networks. My goal is to spread our mission as far as the eye can see, and beyond! We work to prevent harassment within our community, and this serves to bring people together. I have seen firsthand how great of an impact our efforts have been through the lives of our high school students, and we have so much more to achieve with our club members this year! My hope is to reach as many students as possible with our message and teach students and community members how to bring people together for a common cause. Learning to be an active bystander has really helped me in difficult situations, and I am honored to be a senior leader for one of the most important clubs that is not only making a change in our school, but also in our society.
~ Aeliana Lomax
Preventing Bullying through Kindness
I’ve been working with Adam Sherman of the To Be Kind movement over the last few years, as he is an award-winning educator here in my home state of Florida (and also worked in the county where I went to school while growing up!). He is passionate about creating positive climates within schools to reduce violence, harassment, and hate, and his enthusiasm is contagious and so refreshing to see. While teaching Leadership classes at school, he spearheaded a curriculum to encourage a peer environment that helps (and not hurts) others, and it has gained significant traction around Florida.
I’ve asked him and a few of his students to share some of their thoughts below. My hope is that it inspires teachers and counselors to identify a cadre on campus that can take this idea and run with it! With the new academic year upon us, I think it is essential to enlist teens to set the right tone early on regarding bullying and cyberbullying. With effort and follow-through, it has the potential to truly transform the school community.
The educator (Adam Sherman):
Kindness is difficult for students. The hard part with kindness is that our collective society has made it easier to be mean. It is easier, and often more comfortable, to laugh at others, to judge them, to talk negatively behind their back, etc. For lack of a better description, hurting others is sometimes a socially acceptable norm. So when students, or anyone for that matter, go out of their way to do/say something with kindness, they are actually looked at in a negative light. It often means they are going against their peers and that opens them up to be hurt negatively. That means students are quick to give up. As an educator, and quite simply as an adult, I have to help show them that they must continue to persevere despite the nay-sayers.
It can be difficult to imagine teaching young people to be kind. After all, when one thinks of bullying, they automatically think of it as a “rite-of-passage” and that all students do it. But for me, it is easy to help them learn a different way through life because I try to look to my own actions first. Just as anyone else, I make mistakes and say things I don’t mean, but I have to set the example for the students. I have to live my life kindly so that they can learn the behavior. We aren’t born to be mean, we learn to be that way.
When it comes to how we divy up the responsibilities of keeping this program moving, the students are tasked with influencing their peers. They take care of the school operations as well as helping me to design the materials we will use. I handle basically everything else. I monitor paperwork, social media (Facebook and Twitter), community involvement, inquiries, expansion, etc. I want the students to focus on their peers.
That is one of the reasons the program has become so successful. While we have created a model, it can be uniquely individualized for each school that takes it on. We have standards that we like to keep up and basic principles for schools to follow, but anyone who is familiar with education knows that every school is different. What one school needs may not be needed elsewhere. So the hope is that a strong group of students, with a strong adult role model, can create a culture of kindness and make school a place that students want to be. And the students certainly do that.
Since our program has begun three years ago, much has changed in physicality. My original students have moved on (except for one who remains on the Board of Directors), I have changed school districts (where of course I have already laid the groundwork to continue TBK), and though we have grown beyond what we ever thought we would, much remains the same. The message of TBK remains so simple, and also drives its growing popularity. Our pledge, “Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me,” is something that people of all ages can easily remember. We can’t change the behaviors of others, but we can certainly control the behaviors of ourselves. If we practice kindness, we will be surrounded by kindness. And when we are faced with negativity, we can either let it get to us, or we can respond to it by being kind. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn that negative into a positive.
The students (Quinn Solomon, Joshua Sanchez, Danielle Soltren of Lake Brantley High School):
Over the past few years, social media has boomed. But as its popularity grows, so does the ability to mistreat others through the Internet. Often, there’s a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to bullying. Some people assume that it’s a problem that will always exist. We seek to destroy that mentality by showing the power of kindness, both in person and online. We’re optimistic that we can eliminate bullying step-by-step. After a terrifying experience when an online hit list threatened our students and faculty, our Leadership class knew they wanted to make a change.
After a long class discussion, someone suggested using social media as a way to help solve the bullying problem rather than make it worse. We decided to use the already trending idea of “tbh” (to be honest), where users on Facebook can like someone’s status and then receive an honest statement from him or her. Using the same format, we changed the idea to “to be kind.” Users still take part by liking a post on someone’s page. Then the original poster is supposed to give a compliment or write words of kindness on the wall of whoever liked the status. To Be Kind, or TBK, is a simple idea: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Every one of us possesses the ability to be kind. This simplicity is the answer to preventing bullying.
The impact on our school was instantaneous. TBK turned into a buzz overnight. The very next day after we launched our idea, students were talking and trying to figure out what TBK was and where it came from. Using follow-up actions such as putting positive messages in lockers, we quickly turned it into a movement that lots of people wanted to be part of.
Like many new things, our idea hasn’t always been met with positivity. Many of the kind posts that students make on social media are rejected. Many people aren’t used to kindness anymore. We’re used to ridicule rather than compliments. So sometimes people post negativity in response. When that happens, we just thank them for expressing their feelings, or we ignore the comment. The purpose of TBK isn’t to instigate fighting or rumors, or to provide an outlet for people to criticize others. Its purpose is to show that social media and other everyday interactions can be improved with a few thoughtful words. Anyone, of any age, can spread a few extra smiles in a day. And TBK isn’t focused solely on students. We encourage parents and community members to get involved and to support our project at work and at home. We’ve also included the school faculty and staff by sharing words of kindness with them.
We take huge pride in TBK. It has grown into a symbol of anti-bullying not only at our school, but in many schools around our district, country, and beyond. For example, our school participates in a German exchange program. We’ve helped our partner school establish a TBK program, as well. The world wants kindness. People want to be treated as if they matter. That’s the ultimate purpose of the program. We know that kindness will continue to spread and bullying will continue to diminish. Remember: Bullying ends where kindness begins, and it begins with you.
A Leader’s Guide to “Words Wound”
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.
Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This fact sheet provides information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students.
Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/FriendingStudentsonFacebook.pdf
Implications for Society from the Miami Dolphins Bullying Case
Over the past few days, reports were released involving Miami Dolphins football player Richie Incognito, accused of obscenely harassing, bullying, and threatening teammate and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin in the locker room, via text and voicemail, and elsewhere. Martin apparently could not take it anymore, and took a personal leave of absence on Monday, October 28th from a football team trying to get into the playoffs. On Monday, November 4th, Incognito was suspended indefinitely from the team for detrimental conduct pending continued investigation of the inherent issues.
“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. (I want to) s— in your f—— mouth. (I’m going to) slap your f—— mouth. (I’m going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter). F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
On one side of this controversy are those who consider what happened to be typical locker room hazing among athletes, considering it “paying your dues” and a “rite of passage,” and how sometimes you just have to “man up.” On the other side are those asserting that the explicit cruelty in this situation is beyond the pale. On SportsCenter, Chris Berman pointed out the transcendent nature of this regularly-surfacing problem by making parallels to the extent of bullying that victimized youth are experiencing around the country. He rhetorically asked if a grown man in the NFL has bent under repeatedly suffering under the severity and viciousness of bullying, how can we expect a second-grader to handle it?
While our Center primarily focuses on the experiences of adolescents, we are frequently contacted by adults who have been mistreated by others (co-workers, community members, extended family members, ex-romantic partners) and their stories are just as compelling. We do what we can to help them because we know that their lives and stories matter as much as our own, and because there are few things worse than the pain stemming from intentionally inflicted wounds by another person.
In this case, many elements stand out. It is astounding to see how racial hate was expressed with such callousness and perceived impunity. Victimizing someone because of their race could be considered a hate crime in many jurisdictions. We also have specific (and arguably credible?) threats made against Martin’s life (technically a criminal offense in every jurisdiction we know of). You can’t just mouth off and say whatever you want, regardless of whether you are joking, or upset, or frustrated, or angry. We raise our children to know this societal rule, and to respect it. We also know that “hurt people hurt people”; it has been reported that Incognito was picked on while in middle school, and was encouraged by his father to bully others back. He has struggled with anger management and substance abuse, and was named the NFL’s dirtiest player in a poll of fellow players – facts which do not trivialize what has happened but do provide some context.
This once again brings bullying into the limelight and forces us to confront cruelty and hate. As I continue to study this, a few points stand out that can help us respond to and prevent these incidents. Reflecting upon this situation, future Hall of Famer Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis adamantly made clear that “there is a difference between hazing and hate.” Everyone – adults and youth alike – need to understand on a visceral level what is and is not societally acceptable behavior. Some things should never, ever be said (and hopefully never even thought).
Second, Hall of Fame San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young stated that “Great locker rooms self-police.” We know from our work in schools that if members of that intimate community (educators, parents, and the students themselves) create a united front and take a stand against bullying, problems are greatly reduced or avoided. Finally, the Miami Dolphins’ front office has defended their decision to suspend Incognito as essential to maintaining a “culture of respect” among team members. I cannot overemphasize the critical importance of creating and preserving a positive social and emotional climate in ANY setting (e.g., school, corporation, football franchise). It is the linchpin that holds everything together.
Safe and Responsible Social Networking Presentation
This presentation is designed for educators and other youth-serving professionals who want to help adolescents make wise choices when participating on Facebook and similar social networking sites. First, a foundation of the positives of online social networking is laid while also exploring the developmental, emotional, and psychological reasons why teens have gravitated towards extensive communication in these environments. Then discussed are a number of hard-hitting case studies that illuminate how youth have carelessly or unwittingly sabotaged their future and undermined their athletic participation, college admission, work opportunities, and social relationships through unwise postings and Internet use. Finally, guidance is provided as to how to work with this population to enhance positive and appropriate interaction online.
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Student Leader Program
Designed for upper-class students in leadership roles, this interactive presentation empowers youth to take a stand against online cruelty and encourages key students to play a role in creating and maintaining a school culture that condemns bullying in all of its forms. It discusses in detail relevant issues of communication, integrity, and being a good role model.
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Pause Before You Post: What Students Need to Know About Web-based Personal Publishing
Teens are the primary producers of web content, and continue to publish their ideas, experiences, stories, observations, and opinions on blogs, web journals, or personal profile pages (e.g., on Facebook). Additionally, they publish the pictures they take, the music and videos they produce, and many other forms of artistic, creative, intellectual, and social expression. While they are well-familiar with the benefits, teens must become aware of the inherent risks in personal publishing so that they can enjoy it in a safe, responsible, and productive manner. Through real-world and online examples, this presentation sets parameters and guidelines for electronic content made and shared by adolescents, and covers in depth the aspects of audience, anonymity, permanence, copyright, and free speech. Its overall goal is to induce youth to “check themselves before they wreck themselves” through self-reflection prior to their personal publishing.
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Wisconsin’s Bullying Law
As a resident of the state of Wisconsin and someone who follows bullying legislation from around the United States pretty closely (see our summary here), I was particularly interested to learn that a proposal was being put forward to update Wisconsin’s bullying law. Wisconsin’s law took effect in 2010 and requires schools to have a bullying policy and directs our state department of education (the Department of Public Instruction) to develop a model policy that includes several specific elements. Schools may or may not adopt the model policy. The proposed changes can be read here and there is a press release about the proposal here. Individuals in Wisconsin who are interested in this proposal, or the existing bullying law are encouraged to attend a public hearing that will be held on February 28th in Madison. Those who would like to comment on the proposal but who cannot attend the hearing are encouraged to email their comments to Senator Luther Olsen who is the chair of the Committee on Education. That is what I did. Below are my comments about Wisconsin’s bullying law and the proposed changes.
Comments on Proposed Changes to Wisconsin’s Bullying Law
(2011 Senate Bill 427)
Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Co-director, Cyberbullying Research Center
February 24, 2012
I have spent over a decade researching adolescent bullying, with a specific focus on cyberbullying. As co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, I travel across the United States, and abroad, educating school officials, parents, law enforcement officers, other adults who work with youth, and the teens themselves about using technology safely and responsibly. In the last two years I have spoken to over 60,000 people on this topic. I have also authored twenty refereed journal articles and four books, including three on the topic of cyberbullying and teen technology misuse. Finally, I am very familiar with most of the bullying laws across the United States having authored and regularly updated a fact sheet on our web site (www.cyberbullying.us) entitled “A Brief Review of State Cyberbullying Laws and Policies.”
Forty-eight states now have bullying laws in place or scheduled to be implemented in 2012. Wisconsin was one of the more recent states to adopt a bullying law (Wisconsin Act 309; 2009 Senate Bill 154), which took effect in May of 2010. The law required, among other points, that schools adopt bullying policies by August 15, 2010. While the existing law is useful to the extent that it publicly denounces bullying and requires the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop a model policy that may be adopted by schools, it falls short on a number of levels. The currently proposed changes, while a small step forward, do not significantly address the concerns which I present below.
Weaknesses of Wisconsin’s Existing Bullying Law
One major shortcoming of Wisconsin’s existing bullying law is that it simply directs the DPI to create a model bullying policy. That policy may or may not be adopted by schools. Schools must have a bullying policy in place, but the elements of that policy could vary significantly from school to school. While many schools may elect to adopt the model policy as developed by the DPI, they are not required to. I do believe that every school should have the flexibility to develop a policy that is appropriate for their needs, but it would be better to require certain elements to be included in all school policies across the state, including a comprehensive definition of bullying (that includes cyberbullying), procedures for reporting and investigating, appropriate consequences, as well as others listed in 118.46 sub. (1) (a) 1-10.
Another significant problem with the current law is that it does not explicitly mention cyberbullying or other forms of electronic harassment. While cyberbullying is a subset of bullying, the law does not even provide a definition of what bullying is and leaves this up to the DPI and individual districts. Specifically acknowledging cyberbullying as a unique form of bullying that requires response is important given its prevalence and impact on 21st Century schools.
Finally, there is nothing in current law that acknowledges the school’s ability to intervene or reasonably respond to incidents of bullying that occur off school grounds. Many schools across the state wrongly believe that if bullying occurs away from school there is nothing that the school can do to respond. Longstanding case law gives schools the authority to respond to off campus behaviors that disrupt the learning environment at school.
In the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) the Supreme Court stated: “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…” and that only speech or behavior which “materially and substantially interfere(s) with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” are subject to discipline. Barr v. Lafon (2007) clarified that schools need not wait for a disruption to occur before intervening and that if they can articulate a clear threat to the order of the school than can take appropriate actions. We know from Thomas v. Board of Education, Granville Central School District (1979) that student speech that occurs away from school is generally more protected that the speech that occurs at school, but several recent cases have demonstrated that off campus behaviors and speech are subject to school discipline, if the behavior or speech: (1) substantially or materially disrupts the learning environment at school; (2) interferes with the educational process or school discipline; or (3) threatens or otherwise infringes on the rights of other students (see J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 2000; Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the Weedsport Central School District, 2007; and especially Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 2011). The key issue that has been addressed in many cases is that the behavior that occurs away from school results in (or has a likelihood of resulting in) a substantial disruption at school (see Layshock v. Hermitage School District and Blue Mountain School District v. J.S. which were both recently reviewed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ). If a student is being harassed or threatened repeatedly by another student, whether online or at school, there is little question that the ability of that student to learn is being disrupted. As such, it is important that a bullying law includes this information so that schools know that they do in fact have the authority to respond.
Strengths of the Proposal
The current bill does propose some modest improvements to Wisconsin’s bullying law, especially by requiring that the DPI model policy include bullying by “electronic means.” This may be superfluous as the existing model policy already includes “sending insulting messages or pictures by mobile phone or using the internet – also known as cyber bullying.” It also encourages the model policy to include information about responding to bullying behaviors that occur off school grounds. The amendment which includes language that a school board may prohibit bullying that occurs away from school that creates a hostile environment at school for the pupil bullied or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school is exactly what is needed. However, this leads me to the major weakness of current law and the proposed bill.
Weaknesses of the Proposal
The primary problem with the proposed bill, and indeed the existing law, is that it is only a mandate to the DPI to include certain elements in a model policy and not a requirement for schools to include any of these elements in their respective bullying policies. Schools are not required to modify their policies at all – they are only required to have a policy (irrespective of its content and effectiveness). The proposal also states that the DPI model policy must include “appropriate responses to bullying that occurs off school grounds in certain circumstances.” While it is nice to see that the proposal acknowledges the school’s authority to respond to off campus behaviors, what exactly are the “circumstances” where this is appropriate? If this could be clarified in the DPI policy, it would strengthen the understanding of the necessary conditions particularly if specific language was included in the law (see below). The proposed amendment is a significant step in the right direction but only to the extent that it clarifies that what the law is talking about are those off campus incidents that create a hostile environment or that substantially disrupt the learning environment.
My concern with the proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. I urge the legislature to adopt even stronger language clearly demonstrating that any and all forms of bullying, no matter where it occurs, that disrupts the ability of a student to learn, or that creates a hostile learning environment, is subject to reasonable school discipline. Specifically, I urge the legislature to adopt a modified version of New Hampshire’s recently-passed bullying law (HB 1523):
“Schools have the authority and responsibility to apply reasonable and educationally-based discipline, consistent with a pupil’s constitutionally granted privileges, to bullying that: (a) Occurs on, or is delivered to, school property or a school-sponsored activity or event on or off school property; or (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, creates a hostile environment for that pupil or others, or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.”
Similar language has also been adopted in New Jersey and Connecticut law recently. I have modified it minimally to ensure that a student’s constitutionally protected speech is not infringed upon by threatening to discipline a student who is exercising protected speech. As Tinker clearly stated, students have free speech rights, but they are not free to disrupt the learning environment at school (create a disruption, threaten or infringe on the rights of others, etc.).
It is also important that all schools adopt policies that include elements such as those listed in current law (118.46). Alternatively, all schools should be required to adopt the minimum elements included in the DPI model policy.
I also encourage the legislature to provide resources to schools so that they can effectively implement the recommendations and/or requirements included in the law. Schools want to prevent and adequately respond to all forms of bullying and harassment and are simply looking for resources that they can use to assist in such efforts. For instance, the bill should provide staff development and training resources to the DPI, the CESAs or some other state educational training service providers in order for school officials to learn about the law and about how to respond to cyberbullying more effectively.
If I can be of assistance in the further development of this law, please do not hesitate to call upon me.