Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on January 24, 2014

Kobe_Nelson_2A new video has surfaced showing a bullying incident in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The video shows 14-year-old high school freshman Kobe Nelson being pushed around by a classmate while a throng of onlookers heckle and encourage the two to fight. Several of the students can be seen recording the situation on their cell phones. It appears from the video that Kobe is simply trying to walk away, but the aggressor keeps pulling him back into the fray. Eventually Kobe is able to escape, but is later contacted by a police officer assigned to the school who inquires about the fight. He was taken to the office where he was informed that he was being suspended for two days for fighting. Presumably the other student involved was also suspended, but his sanction has not been discussed publicly.

There is sadly nothing all that special or unique about this kind of incident – fights happen in schools every day, and near-misses like this are without a doubt even more frequent. According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 12% of high school students had been involved in a fight at school in 2011. Overall, these numbers have been dropping since the mid-1990s, but still remain at levels of concern. There are no data available that quantifies the number of times students walk away, as Kobe did on that day.

Kobe protested his suspension, arguing that he didn’t do anything wrong. When his father, Tommy Purvis, learned about the video and watched it, it was clear that Kobe’s description of the incident was accurate – he didn’t do anything wrong. Mr. Purvis approached school officials with the video but they reportedly refused to watch it, saying that they already knew what had happened. The police officer assigned to the high school also apparently mocked Kobe, telling him that he should “bulk up” so he wouldn’t make for such an easy target. Perhaps this was an ill-conceived attempt by the officer to lighten things up. But flippant responses like this help explain why less than 30% of the students in our most recent survey (October, 2013) told an adult about their experience with bullying. Being dissatisfied with the school and law enforcement response, Mr. Purvis and his son went public with the incident by posting the story, and video, online.

The Power of Video Evidence

Video has always served as valuable evidence to enable investigators to see exactly the extent of one’s involvement in a criminal incident. Remember back in 2008 when several girls lured 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay into one of their homes for the purpose of beating her up? The motive for the assault seemed to have been linked to some trash-talking Victoria was doing on MySpace. The assault was premeditated for the purpose of teaching her a lesson and was deliberately perpetrated in front of several cell phone cameras so that the incident could be posted on MySpace and YouTube. Several girls were charged criminally and the chief offender, 17-year-old Brittini Hardcastle, served 15 days in jail. The assault was immortalized online and in a 2011 Lifetime movie. There are no shortage of similar squabbles that went viral. Publicity abounds when cruelty is captured in its raw and unedited form. Indeed, one wonders if Rodney King would be a household name today if not for the video that emerged of his beating.

With this in mind, should we encourage bystanders to record incidents of bullying when they witness it so that adults charged with investigating can see exactly what happened? We already encourage students to keep all evidence of cyberbullying, and so reminding and allowing them to document face-to-face incidents like this can help adults sort through the details of what happened so that offending parties can be held accountable. Of course, this could be abused. There is a big difference between the teen who gleefully records an incident for the purpose of later public posting and ridicule, and the teen who quietly gathers evidence to take to the authorities. The latter might be appropriate while the former most certainly is not (and may warrant punishment in its own right).

It is important to remember, too, that video recordings often only capture a snippet of a larger incident. In Kobe’s video, we see less than 90 seconds of the interaction and have no idea what Kobe might have said or done to possibly instigate the altercation. There are always multiple sides to any story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more details emerged in this case. That said, one can only examine the evidence that is available, and video should always be used in combination with eyewitness interviews to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.

I worry, however, that had it not been for the video evidence, Kobe would have had a harder time substantiating the facts of the incident. Sure, maybe a few of his friends would have stepped up and offered support for his version of the events, but no doubt other observers would have contradicted those and the school would have been forced to default to offsetting penalties (punishment for both). And what kind of message does that send?

With Cyberbullying, There Is Always Evidence

One of the defining characteristics of cyberbullying is that there is always evidence. Whether it is a text message, Facebook post, Instagram picture, tweet, or video, it is important to continually remind those who are being targeted to preserve that evidence. With face-to-face bullying it is often one person’s word against another. Digital evidence helps to clarify who said what and when.

I was talking with a school resource officer in Wisconsin last spring about an incident where a student came up to him after school and said she was receiving mean text messages. The officer asked the student to bring in a copy of the messages for him to review. The next day this student brought a printed-out copy of the messages, which included over two pages of content. The problem was that just about every other message had been blocked out with a black Sharpie. When the officer questioned the student about the redacted messages, the student responded “Well…those are my texts to her, and those aren’t important.”  Of course they are important! Adults who investigate bullying incidents need to be able to see all of the information surrounding the incident, so they can respond appropriately given all of the available facts.

School and law enforcement officials need to thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying so that those responsible can be properly disciplined. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. First of all, many law enforcement officers lack good training on how to handle bullying (especially cyberbullying). And even though school administrators are generally much better at handling these kinds of incidents, they are stretched so thin with declining budgets and increasing mandated responsibilities that they often do not have enough time to adequately investigate these reports. So they triage them as best they can, but sometimes mistakes are made. Ultimately, it is up to everyone who witnesses bullying incidents to step up and report what they saw so that the correct and appropriate action can be taken.

4 Responses to “Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response”

  1. Tony Esteves says:

    I don’t know what to say, Justin. I’ve read the link and watched the video and I’m not impressed with how the ‘authorities’ responded to the incident.

    1) the deputy. Kobe’s complaint addresses the deputy’s insensitive approach to the situation. My interpretation of being told to “bulk up” isn’t as an attempt to lighten the mood but as a declaration of victim blaming. Kobe took it as an insult (as discussed in the video interview) and is complaining that the deputy isn’t professional enough to work at that school.

    2) the school officials. I don’t understand why they refused to review the video and suspend Kobe only to have the suspension reversed after the video was made public and public opinion weighed in on the verdict. It was mentioned that they already saw it but… like I said, I don’t know what to say. It feels like lazy administration to say, “If there was a fight, then obviously the participants must be suspended. Case closed.”

    3) In the video linked above at timestamp 20:26 the investigating interviewer says, “My concern, probably the same as yours, is how this will affect your image back at the school…” when discussing investigating further. Is that because bringing forward a complaint to authorities will label you as a “cry baby” amongst your peers?

    Maybe Kobe should have just slugged the kid and earned that suspension. At least he would have earned some school yard cred.

    But seriously: I’m proud that Kobe walked away from the physical confrontation.

  2. I agree, Tony. Regarding the deputy, yes, from what we know, it sounds like he needs to be reassigned. But we don’t know much so in my comments I was doing my best to give him the benefit of the doubt, all the while acknowledging that his comment was unprofessional and inappropriate. The school officials likely just wanted to move beyond the incident as quickly as possible and the default response was suspensions for all involved. The curse of the Zero Tolerance model. Regarding your suggestion that Kobe slug the kid – in an earlier draft of this post I included an anecdote dating back to my days playing youth hockey where I received a penalty for fighting, when I didn’t even do anything. So I wailed off and smacked the other kid on my way to the penalty box. The coach asked me what the heck I was doing and I told him that since I was getting the penalty anyway, I might as well have made it worth it. I removed that story from the post because I was afraid some might agree with the logic (and your point below). But you are right that students might eventually learn that they are going to get punished anyway, they might as well fight. Which, of course, would only make matters worse in the long run. All the more reason for schools to put in the time to get it right when doling out punishments.

  3. […] Last week I posted about a situation where a student was suspended for his involvement in a fight where 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 and 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 are often 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 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 general 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 just 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 is 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 administer 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 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 administers 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 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 SROs are utilized in schools. As is frequently the case, the conclusion must be 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 […]

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