Teacher shames student in classroom after student bullies teacher on Twitter
Recently, a female student in Northern Mexico posted very offensive comments about her teacher – Ms. Idalia Hernandez Ramos – on Twitter. These included referring to her as a “whore” and a “bitch,” and defaming her in other hurtful and insulting ways. At best, the behavior is a youthful indiscretion that unfortunately hurts the feelings of an innocent person. At worst, it was a very cruel and painful act of harassment which could leave serious emotional and psychological wounds, apart from severely damaging the teacher’s reputation now and in the future. According to how we define it, it would be considered “cyberbullying.”
Most of us likely wouldn’t have heard about this case if not for a video uploaded to YouTube documenting what seems to be a typical classroom scene. In this video, Ms. Hernandez Ramos is teaching her class and covering material that interestingly, (and not coincidentally, we find out) relates to social media etiquette and digital citizenship. At one point, she singles out a female student and engages her in healthy dialogue about how online hate and bullying is extremely harmful, and can destroy the image of the person being targeted – and how teens can suffer legal consequences for their postings. And then, suddenly, the dialogue turns into an inquisition of sorts, as the teacher confronts the student about what she posted, and asks her why she would do such a thing.
At this point, the student is emotional after being called out in front of her classmates. She admits her role as the author of the hateful tweet, saying she was upset when she wrote it. Ms. Hernandez Ramos then remarks how she too is upset, and that so many others have seen the tweet, and that damage has been done. She then demands an apology from the student (and another student who shared the tweet with others) and states she will not allow “young brats” to call her that.
The epilogue of this story is that the student was suspended for two weeks, and the teacher has been placed on classroom leave while authorities determine whether she should lose her job. Overall, the case can serve an instructional lesson as we continue to wrestle with novel problems that arise from the misuse of technology in our everyday lives.
Harm is Harm No Matter Who is Involved
I am glad we are sensitive to the student’s humiliation and shame. However, we need to be equally sensitive to the teacher’s humiliation and shame as well. She was victimized. The worth of one’s dignity should not be on a sliding scale depending on how old you are. Furthermore, it does warrant defending. I would speak up and defend myself if ever bullied, harassed, embarrassed, threatened, or otherwise mistreated. Doing so must always be encouraged among everyone – but it should be done through the proper channels and in the proper environment.
It is good that the teacher confronted the student about her poor judgment and harmful online speech. But it is not good that the teacher publicly shamed the student in front of her peers. To be sure, the teacher herself was publicly shamed. However, we must hold adults in supervisory positions over youth to a higher standard of integrity and character. Whether they like it or not, they serve as a behavioral model to teens. They should take the “narrow road” and emulate wisdom and maturity every chance they get.
In this case, if I were the teacher, I would have been very upset and emotional about the situation. I believe such feelings are justifiable and natural. However, I would have spoken to the student in private, one-on-one, when I was calm and level-headed. In this case, the teacher “set up” the student. She asked other students to record the confrontation and apology. When I speak with teens, I remind them that retaliating is never the answer. It never defuses the situation or resolves the conflict. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Here, the teacher is clearly avenging the wrong she experienced.
We do need to remain gracious and understanding towards teens when they demonstrate immaturity. I wouldn’t want the student expelled, and I believe that two weeks of suspension is a just penalty. However, I wouldn’t want the teacher fired. Given what I’ve said above, can’t we extend some grace towards Ms. Hernandez Ramos as well – especially considering the emotional turmoil, stress, and sadness she must have experienced? Yes, she could have responded in a better way, but her victimization is an extenuating circumstance that lowers the maliciousness of her intent.
Not the First Time We Have Seen This
This reminds me of the situations involving parents who publicly shamed their daughters to teach them a lesson. Supporters of those parents’ actions termed it “creative parenting,” but it rightfully could be considered “cyberbullying.” If the dominant desire of any adult is to instill fear, guilt, and shame instead of conveying a life lesson about right and wrong in a healthy, encouraging, and loving manner, we’ve got a major problem. I’d consider such actions downright abusive. Caring adults should serve a protective function to buffer kids from the harsh realities of the world since they are at such a delicate point in their adolescent development.
Cyberbullied Adults Need Support, Assistance, and Guidance as Well
A number of adults contact our Center for assistance when being targeted. Their stories are as real, raw, and as devastating as the ones we hear from children and teens. Educators need to be trained and equipped to deal with online harassment and hate. This situation allows us to once again shine the spotlight on cyberbullying and ensure our prevention and response efforts are measured, informed, and best suited to truly make a meaningful difference.
Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Is it Ok for Educators to Connect with Students on Facebook?
Some of you may have seen that we posted a new fact sheet earlier in the week with information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media. This has been a topic of intense debate on this blog for years and we would love to hear your opinions. So, before we go any further, we have a quick poll for you to tell us how you feel about whether it is appropriate for educators to connect with students:
Now, take some time to look over our fact sheet and let us know what you think. Post your comments below about whether you think it is a good idea for educators to be connected with their students on social media or not. What are your concerns? How could it be valuable? Are you using social media in your schools to connect students with staff?
Social Influences on Cyberbullying Behaviors Among Middle and High School Students
Sameer and I wrote a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence that examines the influence of peers, parents, and educators on the cyberbullying behaviors of middle and high school students. It has long been known that adolescent behaviors (both positive and negative) are largely influenced by significant others. Our paper basically re-affirms that finding as it relates to cyberbullying.
Specifically, we found that “…students who reported that many of their friends had bullied others (at school, using a computer, and using a cell phone) were significantly more likely to have also reported that they too had cyberbullied others.” At the same time, we also found that those “who reported that a sanction was likely from their parents or school were significantly less likely to report involvement.” The importance of peers was particularly prominent. Students who reported that “most” or “all” of their friends had bullied others in the previous 6 months were nearly 17 times more likely themselves to bully others, compared to those who said that none or only a few of their friends were bullies. But it is also noteworthy that students who felt that a sanction was likely from parents or teachers were significantly less likely to report that they had cyberbullied others.
Here is the abstract:
Cyberbullying is a problem affecting a meaningful proportion of youth as they embrace online communication and interaction. Research has identified a number of real-world negative ramifications for both the targets and those who bully. During adolescence, many behavioral choices are influenced and conditioned by the role of major socializing agents, including friends, family, and adults at school. The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which peers, parents, and educators influence the cyberbullying behaviors of adolescents. To explore this question, data were analyzed from a random sample of approximately 4,400 sixth through twelfth grade students (49 % female; 63 % nonwhite) from thirty-three schools in one large school district in the southern United States. Results indicate that cyberbullying offending is associated with perceptions of peers behaving similarly, and the likelihood of sanction by adults. Specifically, youth who believed that many of their friends were involved in bullying and cyberbullying were themselves more likely to report cyberbullying behaviors. At the same time, respondents who believed that the adults in their life would punish them for cyberbullying were less likely to participate. Implications for schools and families are discussed with the goal of mitigating this behavior and its negative outcomes among adolescent populations.
The full paper is available here. We also have a brief fact sheet that summarizes the findings which is available here.
School Climate and Cyberbullying: An Empirical Link
Our latest book School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Class at a Time argues that one promising way to prevent cyberbullying and other problematic online behaviors from occurring is to develop a positive climate at school where students feel safe and cared about. There is ample evidence to affirm the power of a positive climate in preventing a host of problems at school, including student and teacher victimization, delinquency, and disorder. We wondered if a positive climate at school could also serve as a protective factor in reducing involvement in cyberbullying, sexting, and other high-tech misbehaviors that largely occur away from school.
As a preliminary test of this hypothesis, we analyzed data from a random sample of approximately 4,400 middle and high school students from 33 schools in a large school district in the United States. We asked students to tell us their thoughts about the quality of the climate at their school and also asked them to report their experiences with cyberbullying. With regard to the quality of the climate, we specifically asked students to tell us the extent to which they agreed with the following statements:
- I feel safe at my school.
- I feel that teachers at my school care about me.
- I feel that teachers at my school really try to help me succeed.
- I feel that students at my school trust and respect the teachers.
- I feel that teachers at my school are fair to all students.
- I feel that teachers at my school take bullying very seriously.
Students responded to each of these questions using a 4-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (3). Scores from the six questions were averaged for each student, and each school was given an average score based on responses from a random sample of students in that school. School climate scores ranged from 1.41 to 2.16, and the three groups were created by looking at natural breaks, which placed roughly one-third of the schools in each group. Average climate scores for each group were low (1.55), medium (1.71), and high (1.90).
For cyberbullying, we used our standard measure which first defined cyberbullying as “when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” We then asked about nine different types of cyberbullying behaviors (including pictures, messaging, comments, etc.). We calculated the percentage of students who had been cyberbullied or who had cyberbullied others, by school, and aggregated the schools across the three different groups of school climate (low, medium, and high). As expected, we saw a clear relationship between the quality of the climate and the proportion of students who had experienced cyberbullying.
As you can see from Table 1 (click here for a larger version of the chart), the better the quality of the climate, the fewer number of students reported experiencing (either as a victim or as a bully) cyberbullying. The students from higher climate schools also reported fewer sexting incidents. Our book goes into a lot more detail about the research and results, and provides numerous practical examples of ways to improve one’s school climate, so please check it out for more information.
It is important once again to acknowledge the preliminary nature of this research. We were only able to include 33 schools from one school district, and we want to encourage others to replicate this work with larger and more diverse samples. Ideally, scores of schools from around the U.S. (and abroad!) would be sampled and analyzed to obtain a more comprehensive picture of the nature of the relationship between climate and online behaviors. And we would be happy to assist others in these efforts. If you have any other questions about this or any of our other research, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Bullying and Peer Violence Videos as Teaching Tools?
A colleague sent me an article detailing how pictures and videos of bullying and other forms of violence posted online – student on student, or student on teacher – can actually be used as a “teachable tool” and to “wake everyone up.” Parents can sit down with youth and watch them together, and convey lessons about appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with conflict. I actually don’t agree with this. A recent discussion among other colleagues has focused on whether video content that ostensibly shocks the conscience can be used to teach adolescents about wrong and right behaviors. Research and anecdotal accounts have shown, though, that images (shown to accompany the stories of victims) of drunk driving crashes do not largely deter DWIs long-term (see here, here, and here). This is perhaps because the content is not viewed in a serious, grave light – but are rather casually dismissed as commonplace or irrelevant since youth tend to be desensitized to violence due to television, movies, and the Internet. It also may be because of an invincibility complex among teens, or an inability to fully relate to and internalize the possibility of it happening to them.
I think that since youth see physical fights often (as compared to adults) – either on school campuses or in the neighborhood – that seeing them captured in video and posted online will not really strike an alarming and dissonant chord in their minds. Kids look up these kinds of videos on YouTube for entertainment. It won’t surprise them. It won’t deter them. It won’t all of the sudden convince them that punches and kicks are completely unacceptable ways to resolve conflict.
What do you all think?
Guidelines for updating your school’s social networking policy
As a followup to our last blog post, we’d like to share some more guidance to keep in mind as you are updating and refining your school’s policy related to Facebook (and other social networking sites). We hope this is helpful for you. Please remember, though, that you must do a lot more than policy enhancements to be in compliance with the FCC’s new mandates, and to make a meaningful difference in protecting students and avoiding liability issues. Thanks again to Mike Donlin for his excellent summary on these matters!
Preliminary Guidance on the use of Facebook, MySpace and other Social Networking Sites in Schools
– Recognizing the value of social networking in 21st century education,
– Recognizing that social networking is specifically mentioned in Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act and FCC guidance,
– Recognizing that the FCC guidance states specifically that filtering of Facebook, My Space and other social networking sites is not necessarily required, and finally,
– Recognizing that there are potential safety, security and liability issues, the following is preliminary guidance for educators on the use of social networking sites in schools:
1. Check and follow your most current district / school policies and procedures on the use of social networking tools in schools. The policy you may be called by some variation of your district’s Internet Use, Network Use, Internet Access, or Network Access policy. You will also want to check your district’s Internet or network use/access agreement for students and staff.
a. There might be different, separate accounts through the same service, however.
b. Do not use social networking sites which do not come through your district network.
4. Do not share personal information on your professional/educational site.
5. Remember: using a social networking site for educational purposes has the potential for extending your school day beyond the school day and the school walls.
– It also has the potential of exposing students to your own or to others’ personal information, even inadvertently.
6. All rules which apply to your bricks-and-mortar classroom and school apply to the online, social networking environment: bullying, harassment, courtesy, appropriate language, timeliness, etc.
7. Inform and involve school administration
8. Inform and involve parents/guardians as appropriate. However, this also may be problematic:
a. Inviting parents to join/participate would be tantamount to inviting parents to be involved in your classroom every day.
b. The parents would have to know that they should not join using their ‘personal’ sites.
c. Remember: there are students from broken, blended or other non-standard families, as well as some with no-contact orders. The teachers would have to be able to negotiate through all that in some, not too demanding way.
d. This might involve a small number of students, but potential risk and liability issues arise.
9. Do not friend other adults on your educational site.
a. Allow for the possibility of inviting “special guests” for specific educational purposes.
b. For such a professional guest profile-type, establish a vetting process, done by the educator using some sort of rubric.
c. Establish what the expert guest would need to agree to be involved.
d. Consider the involvement of teaching team members, student teachers, specialists, counselors and/or administrators
Public schools, Facebook, and the FCC
Our colleague Mike Donlin and I have been talking out some issues related to public education and teen technology use. He has recently pointed out that there are certain points that the FCC would like schools to know as it relates to their intersection with and use of social networking sites. Specifically, schools need to be very familiar with the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, and that it:
1. Adds statutory language to existing FCC rules for implementing the Children’s Internet Protection Act
2. Has an impact on eRate compliance
3. Requires that school districts’ board policies provide for the education of minors regarding appropriate online behavior including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and regarding cyberbullying awareness and response
4. This requirement is in addition to existing Children’s Internet Protection Act requirements (requiring blocks/filters, and education of staff, students, parents, etc.)
Also, in addition to policy language, it is important to note that the FCC also specifically mentions Facebook and MySpace, as well as addressing other social networking sites. The FCC finds that:
1. Individual pages on Facebook or MySpace might be potentially harmful to minors, but
2. these sites are not “harmful to minors”, per se, and
3. do not fall into a category of websites which must be blocked.
4. Further noting recent work by the Department of Education, the FCC and the DOE suggest that “social networking websites have the potential to support student learning…” (FCC 11-125 Report and Order, p.8)
So, what are the implications of all of this?
1. By July 1, 2012, School Boards will have to create or update current Internet Use policies to include wording that they are teaching Internet safety
2. Districts will have to decide how, who and with what they will implement this new requirement
3. With the comments on Facebook and other social networking sites, and with the inclusion of social networking within required Board policy language, education and training around both appropriate and pedagogical uses of social networking resources will be critical
4. Districts and schools will need background and training on issues, materials, approaches, resources
5. Cyberbullying awareness and response will need to be included within ongoing harassment, intimidation and bullying training and program implementation
6. As the education of minors about appropriate online behavior, digital citizenship, cyberbullying, etc., covers a wide range of issues and topics, it will be very important for prevention-intervention, school safety, counseling, educational technology and content specialists to work closely to create as effective and all-encompassing digital safety education program as possible
So, the major question are as follows: Is your district positioned to address all of these requirements? How specifically are you making this happen? What will you use to educate staff and students? What protocols are currently in place as it relates to prevention, investigation, and response? Are they ideal? I know that many states just wrapped up standardized testing, and are just trying to make it through the end of the school year. These matters, though, will have to be addressed before administrators take a break for the summer.
Facebook for Educators, and the issues we need to consider
I have been chatting with my colleague Nancy Willard of the Center for Responsible Internet Use about Facebook in schools, and how they should and should not be used by educators. These are her recent thoughts with some of my input added…just to get some more discussion going on this issue. We both think that schools MUST shift to the use of interactive technology environments to effectively prepare students for success in their future. There are incredibly effective tools to do this, like EPals and EdModo. However, Facebook in its current instantiation may not be perfectly suited for certain uses by educators. For example, the use of Facebook for community outreach – by schools or extracurricular organizations – is perfectly appropriate. In addition, there may be times that it would be helpful and appropriate for students to access material on Facebook for instructional purposes. However, I would hesitate to recommend that Facebook be used as a platform for instructional activities based on its current limited feature set for schools and educators. The potential problems – including potential liability for schools – are significant.
– The privacy of student work products must be protected under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Having students publicly post their work on Facebook could very well violate this federal statute. (Justin and I recommend that schools and teachers set up Facebook Fan Pages which ensures that communications between the adults and students are public…but Facebook is testing the capability for Fans (students, in this case) to send private messages to the owner (adult educator, in this case) of the Fan page. See here for more information.)
– Schools would have to ensure that every adult has effectively set up the appropriate group protections to avoid the potential of liability.
– If a teacher has access to student Facebook profiles, these profiles could reveal evidence of abuse. If a teacher fails to detect and report such abuse, the teacher might be in violation of state mandatory reporting laws.
– Facebook requires individuals to be at least 13 years of age to sign up. Schools must adopt interactive platforms that can be used throughout their K-12 system.
– Students deserve privacy in their personal and social communications. Being required to use Facebook for their instructional activities disrespects this privacy for some. Also, some students and their parents might prefer not to have an account on Facebook.
– Facebook’s business model is focused on market profiling and advertising. Whether instructional environments should be engaged in these activities is definitely a controversial issue.
– Teachers and other school staff who want to friend students on Facebook are possibly setting themselves up for difficulties. School staff should certainly maintain friendly and supportive relationships with students. But do we want to *formally* encourage teachers to become students’ “friends?” Should they also go and hang out at the mall and go to movies with students? Or should they maintain a distinction in the status of their relationship? This, of course, is a polarizing debate with many strong opinions on one side or the other.
To summarize, these are some of the difficulties associated with teacher friending of students:
– The aforementioned mandatory reporting requirement
– Activities in an environment that is fundamentally built for sharing personal information, thoughts, experiences, photos, and videos (as compared to other social networking platforms like LinkedIn)
– Perceived pressure on students to allow teachers to have (at least some) access to their personal social environment, which may violate their privacy
– Perceived grading bias if some students establish deeper or stronger “connections” or friendships than others
– Possible expectation that busy teachers take on some of the responsibility of monitoring and intervening in student-student personal relationships when they are out of school
I really want to hear your thoughts on this…again, keeping in mind the caveats I have stated. I am not suggesting we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Facebook is great and has numerous benefits and incredible potential. I just don’t think it is where it needs to be yet in terms of providing what schools and educators need to deliver education and provide connections in a perfectly appropriate way.
Here are some sample policies that may help you within your school or district as you seek to establish or revise your current formal rules.
Facebook has also contracted with a third-party to create a Guide for Educators, and it is available here.
Chime in and let’s talk this out!
Another Well-Meaning, but Unfunded Mandate to Address Bullying
New Jersey’s updated bullying law took effect today amid controversy and confusion. The New York Times recently reported on the law and I have received numerous calls from folks interested in my take on certain provisions. Bullying and cyberbullying legislation has been the topic of much discussion on this blog, and regular readers know that we see a place for evidence-based, fiscally supported state legislation that helps clarify school responsibilities and provides them with the tools to better manage bullying and cyberbullying incidents. We haven’t seen the perfect law yet, and New Jersey’s iteration is not it either.
New Jersey’s law seems to focus much attention on accountability – not on holding the bully accountable, but making sure school officials take certain actions expeditiously. There are a series of requirements in the law that designate a very tight timeline for school actions:
• Principal must investigate incidents within one school day of witnessing or receiving a report of bullying
• Investigation must be completed within ten school days
• Results of the investigation must be sent to superintendent within two school days of completion
• Results must be reported to the board of education at the next scheduled meeting
• Parents need to be informed of investigation within five school days of board notification
• Parents may request a hearing of the board, which must be held within 10 days
The impetus for providing a detailed paper-trail and strict timeline for dealing with each incident likely comes from parents or student targets who feel as though their reports of harassment have been ignored, but holding schools to such a firm schedule will prove challenging. And depending on how each school interprets the definition of “bullying,” staff could quickly become mired in a bureaucracy and be forced to spend more time on paperwork than actually problem solving.
In fact, an interesting aspect of the language in this law is that it explicitly includes single incidents which traditionally would not have been considered bullying: “‘Harassment, intimidation or bullying’ means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents…” Clearly it is important to address all forms of harassment, even one-time incidents, no matter how minor, but to require schools to formally document every single case could easily overwhelm them with paperwork.
The law follows the pattern of other recent state legislation (see our analysis of New Hampshire’s law) in adding language that incorporates off-campus behaviors that substantially disrupt the learning environment at school. This seems to be one of the most controversial aspects of the law even though nothing has really changed with this. For decades the standard has been that any behavior, whether on campus or off, that substantially or materially disrupts the learning environment at school is subject to the school’s authority. This was originally articulated in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 and several subsequent Supreme Court cases have applied this precedent to numerous incidents where schools disciplined students for off-campus speech or behavior. States have simply tried to codify this so that the standard is more widely understood. This law does not require teachers to police the Internet, but it does insist that they respond when reports of cyberbullying that are disruptive to students at school are made. Since most schools are already doing that, the only significant change is the amount of documentation that is required within a very short period of time.
In general, much of the provisions in the law are actually positive, and again most schools are already doing many of the elements included. The major problem is that no money has been allocated to pull any of this together. For example, each school needs to designate an “anti-bullying specialist” and each district needs to name a “bullying coordinator” (contact information for these folks must be listed on the school’s web page). Since no resources have been provided to schools to hire actual specialists, these duties will no doubt fall on staff who may or may not have expertise in bullying prevention and response. Moreover, schools are now required to provide training to staff and volunteers, but information is lacking regarding evidence-based training programs or curricular enhancements. Therefore, many schools will be forced to create an ad-hoc program or pay for someone to provide programming that might not be effective or informed by research. These mandates are coming at time when schools in New Jersey and across the United States are laying off teachers and essential support staff left and right. If New Jersey and other states really wanted to send a strong message that bullying prevention and response is a priority, then they would provide resources for schools to implement these policies and practices effectively. Until then, the new law is only a bunch of words on paper. Complete details of the law are available here.