To deal with the serious problem of cyberbullying, schools need to understand that it's not really about technology and to involve the whole school community in addressing it.
Cyberbullying is a serious problem that, according to research, is the most common online risk for young people, affecting about a third of US 13-to-17-year-olds, and has led to some tragic student suicides. Schools and courts are struggling to figure out how to deal with student behavior that occurs off school grounds but can have such a disruptive, sometimes destructive, effect on school.
All the discussion about the legal and First Amendment issues seems to be missing a key factor that points to how to handle cyberbullying: the media environment with which all these incidents are directly associate. The Internet, especially to youth, is now a) collegial or social/behavioral in nature and b) mirrors "real world" life and conditions – it's not something in addition to student or school life. Bullying online is not a whole new problem for schools and courts to deal with. It's a reflection of student relationships, and the bullying's context is largely the life of the school community, not the Internet (or cellphones or any other devices).
Cyberbullying prevention/intervention take a village too
"Because a bully's success depends heavily on context" – write Yale psychology professor Alan Yazdin and his co-author Carlo Rotella at Boston College in "Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village" at Slate.com – "attempts to prevent bullying should concentrate primarily on changing the context rather than directly addressing the victim's or the bully's behavior." That, they add, involves "the entire school, including administration, teachers, and peers."
Author and educator Rosalind Wiseman agrees. In a 55-min. podcast interview she gave fellow educator and author Annie Fox, Wiseman recently said that dealing with cyberbullying "really speaks to a school's culture of dignity....
"Don't do a 45-minute assembly on cyberbullying," Wiseman said. "It's a waste of time. Have a faculty meeting, and then have a parent meeting, and tell the students this is what you're doing – not just a bullying assembly. Tell them 'we understand that this is about the whole culture of the school, and as part of that culture, you have to participate in this as well.'" Slightly tongue in cheek, Wiseman adds that this will increase "the chance of students believing you're not completely full of it."
Quick fixes don't exist
Schools will probably get plenty of eye-rolling and "whatever's" from the more socially aggressive students, but gradually things can turn around – particularly if there's disciplinary backup. [Note the word "backup": discipline is not the goal, but rather restoration of order – more on this below.] For example, when talking with a student suspected of having been the bully in an incident, the end of the conversation could go something like:
"I know we're on the same page, here: You're a person of honor, so I'm taking you on your word that this won't happen again. But you need to be clear that, if you walk out of here and, as a result of this meeting, the life of the target in any way becomes more difficult, then we are in a whole different situation – a whole different le
vel of the problem. You need to be clear that, if that happens, you're taking a very big chance." That conversation could also include the following. "I hope and expect that you'll be talking with your parents about this, because I'm going to be calling them within 24 hours." Wiseman tells teachers and administrators that of course the kids will talk to their parents, offering their own spin on the situation. "So it's very important to say to the parent, 'I wanted to include you from the beginning, that is why I talked with your child. I fully expected [him or her] to speak to you immediately and now I'm following up so we can work together and have this be a learning opportunity – a teachable moment – for your child."
Turning incidents into 'teachable moments'
Those words are crucial: "learning opportunity," "teachable moment." They are stepping stones on the way to building the school's "culture of dignity," as Wiseman put. Because it's merely logical that a one-time, sage-on-the-stage assembly will accomplish very little. It's also logical that involving all players and skill sets – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors – creates the conditions for changing the school's culture. The school is, in fact, creating a new social norm – as Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and an adviser to state legislators working on bullying-education legislation, told Emily Bazelon at Slate.com – where the whole school community looks down on dissing, flaming, mean gossiping, and other social cruelty, hopefully including students' parents. The Slate piece links to some great resources for school strategizing. For example, here's a sexting investigation protocol from the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use offering the spectrum of sexting causes and intentions enabling school staff to ask students intelligent questions.
When an interdisciplinary group of us were working on that protocol, authored by Nancy Willard, it occurred to me that, because it lays out the spectrum of sexting's causes, it'll help school officials see why it's essential that schools not just reflexively hand off investigations to law enforcement (whose involvement some state laws require).
The goal of any incident investigation
"The immediate goal of the investigation is not discipline [and certainly not expediency] but rather support for the targeted student(s) [who may be experiencing psychological harm], and restoration of order. The ultimate goal is to create a learning opportunity for all involved. The learning opportunity should be on-the-spot, as well as school and community-wide, and focus on the areas of critical thinking, mindful decision-making, perspective-taking, and citizenship." That's a statement a couple of us worked up because we feel it's so important for everybody to understand that, in the social-media age, we can only change behavior – in schools and online communities – together, as "a village."