Two-thirds of school violence begins outside of school through social media according to Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. Willard, along with Barbara J Paris, Member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, presented an Education Week Webinar February 23.
The presentation, titled “When Cyber bullying spills into schools” looked at what educators legally can do to address cyber bullying that takes place off campus, and what effective measures schools can take to ensure a safe learning environment for students.
Balancing free speech rights of aggressors with the rights students have to a hostile-free learning environment is not a new issue and has in the past been addressed by the U.S. Supreme court. Behavior that substantially disrupts learning can be banned in schools, but can students be punished for off-campus behavior?
According to Willard, school does have authority to take action if the behavior interferes with education. Laws vary, and change, from state to state, but Willard emphasizes this is a problem that cannot be ignored. Students must feel safe in school, lacking this, all efforts towards educating will be futile. Schools cannot wait for lawmakers to come up with solutions.
New York’s Dignity for all Students Act, which takes effect July 2012, requires that no student shall be subjected to harassment, discrimination, or bullying by employees or students. The Dignity Act does not specifically address harmful behaviors that take place off campus leaving individual districts responsible for developing, or not developing, policies to counter cyber bullying.
According to Willard punitive measures has been ineffective in stopping cyber bullying and schools need to adopt pre-emptive policies and protocols. If adults don’t determine the school culture, the students will.
Paris says it is important to make students part of the solution and parents must be brought into the discussion. Much of what takes place on-line or through text messaging goes unreported. Students need to be able to report incidents without fear of reprisals, making an anonymous reporting system an important part of any solution. The needs of the aggressor must also be addressed – “What’s going on in your child’s life that they are engaging in hurtful behavior?”
Paris, who believes the term bullying has lost meaning through overuse, says schools must “look through a lens of mistreatment of others.” If anyone (student or adult) in the school is mistreating another, then it must be addressed.
Paris has developed a 5-Rs strategy for educators to deal with reported incidents:
- Respond- always respond to any mistreatment – validate every incident and ask the complainant “What do you need me to do?”
- Research- gather all facts: names, dates, places, witnesses. Use concrete language and find a context for the incident. Was it one piece in an ongoing feud?
- Record- document everything
- Report- report findings to appropriate people. The Dignity Act requires each school has a trained Dignity Act Coordinator. If there is evidence of criminal behavior – extortion, harassment, hate crime, child pornography, sexual exploitation or invasion of privacy – the incident should be reported to law enforcement officials.
- Revisit- return to complainant to report actions taken and determine if the problem has been resolved.