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Facebook, Take 2: Cyberbullying

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Last month I wrote a somewhat humorous poem about Facebook and why I am not a big fan of the site. That article was published on April 19th. On April 20 I found myself at the table (yet again) with a group of quarreling sixth grade girls. While sixth grade girls quarreling about the he-said, she-said stuff is pretty routine, the root of this consternation stemmed from a Facebook exchange between two of the girls. When asked how this whole thing started, Salina replied: “Jenna said mean stuff on Facebook to me about Stacie. Then I told Jenna that it was mean and she shouldn’t be telling me that stuff. Then I told Stacie what Jenna was saying about her on Facebook. Then Stacie got mad and she told me that she was going to beat up Jenna. Then Jenna called everyone a skank and everyone got mad and started yelling at each other using really bad language.”

Now, although this Facebook exchange went on outside of school over the weekend, it became the topic of conversation at the lunch table on Monday. It then spilled into recess and ultimately into my office. While I have heard quite a bit about cyberbullying via emails and text messages, this was the first cyberbullying incident I had dealt with regarding Facebook. I asked each of the girls involved if she had a Facebook page and all but one said she did. I also asked them why they allowed certain girls to be on their friends list when they know that some of them will resort to this type of bullying, and most said because they felt they “had to.” This kind of pressure to allow “friends” on one’s site could also be considered a form of bullying, as they feel there may be consequences to shutting some out regardless of their lack of Internet etiquette.

According to the website stopcyberbullying.org, cyberbullying is “when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.” As a public school principal, I can’t legally discipline a student for cyberbullying actions that take place outside of school that don’t result in bodily harm at school. However, when cyberbullying that has taken place outside of school becomes a school issue, as it did today, we must reserve the right to take action if the effects of outside cyberbullying threaten the safety or well-being of the student(s) in school, even if it hasn’t caused bodily harm…yet. Stopcyberbullying.org recommends adding a provision to the school’s acceptable use of the Internet policy, reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to adversely affect the safety and well-being of a student while at school. According to the site, this makes it a contractual, not constitutional issue.

So far, nine states have cyberbullying laws designed to protect children from being harassed, threatened and humiliated online. Two of those states, Arkansas and New Jersey have express language in their laws that allow for school officials to take action against cyber bullies even if the actions take place outside of school.

In a 2007 USA Today article, Koloff reported that “The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed some cyberbullying laws, saying they set up school officials to trample on students' First Amendment rights. The ACLU helped block a proposal last year to expand an Oregon law to include off-campus bullying, arguing that school officials have no right to impose punishment on students for what they do away from school.”

While Minnesota (where I am a principal) enacted a law in 2007 requiring each school district in the state to put policies in place to address the growing problem of cyberbullying, there are no provisions for disciplining students for cyberbully actions. Our Acceptable Use of the Internet policy next school year will definitely not only address cyberbullying, it will include a clause that states something to the effect, “If cyberbullying outside of school becomes an issue in which a student feels threatened or unsafe in any way at school, the principal has the authority to discipline the cyber bully.” It will give the school community the clear message that cyberbullying will not be tolerated and at the very least will give me a little leverage when I need it.

By Nancy Flynn 5/19/09

References:
www.cyberbullyalert.com/blog/2008/10/cyber-bullying-state-laws-and-policies/

www.ag.state.mn.us/consumer/ylr/cyberbullying.asp

www.socialsafety.org/law_enforcement_cyberbullying.html


USA Today, 2-7-2008 States push for cyberbully controls
By Abbott Koloff, USA TODAY

2 Comments

There is some confusion on the legal standards for when a school administrator can impose formal discipline in response to off-campus online speech. Actually, the case law is relatively clear. School officials have the authority to impose discipline if the speech has, or there are particularized reasons to believe it will cause a substantial disruption at school or interference with the rights of students to be secure. Three types of situations generally meet this standard - violent altercations, hostile environment for a student, significant interference with instruction.

School officials do not have the legal authority to respond to highly objectionable speech - there must be an impact at school that is significant or particularized reasons to anticipate this.

This being said, in the vast majority of instances the traditional disciplinary consequence, suspension, is really not going to be effective - and may actually lead to greater problems. Frequently the cyberbullying incidents are a result of increasing escalation of aggression - so it is really hard to figure out who was the original "bully."

Suspend the student who posted hurtful material online and you might have just suspended the student who is being tormented at school and does not trust that school officials can do anything to stop this. Suspension just turned this student into an increased risk of violence and failure.

Frequently, these situations end up involving large groups of students. a "we hate (student name)" group that involves more than 50 students, some posting hurtful comments, some trying to stimulate a fight, some just lurking. And the possibility that the student targeted is making life difficult at school for other students. Who will you suspend?

Also if the suspension leads to anger - this can also lead to significant anonymous retaliation against the original target, anyone who reported, and the principal.

Responding to these incidents will require a more proactive resolution response. Having spoken about this concern across the country, I am convinced that principals really want to be able to figure out how to effectively respond to these situations - but face challenges in doing so because the traditional responses simply will not work - but they are not quite sure how to proceed. I will soon be releasing professional development materials for principals and safe school personnel on this.

The situation in Oregon is reflective of the concerns about how principals can effectively respond. The ACLU incorrectly argued to the state legislature that it was not legal for school officials to respond (clearly it is legal). But the ACLU was backed up in this faulty analysis by the school board and school administrative leadership organizations that did not want a requirement TO respond. Fortunately, many principals in Oregon are ignoring this statutory restriction - if they did not students in Oregon would be at greater risk.

For the record, (and just focusing on picky details) I recommend changing the policy on bullying to incorporate any off-campus acts that cause or threaten a substantial disruption at school or interference with the rights of any other students to feel secure - not incorporating this into the Internet use policy.

I am no expert on the legal limits of schools' response to cyberbulling. I have, however, worked for many years with children in group and community settings in the area of setting acceptable norms of behavior. I would say that for the most part the expectations that we dealt with were not codified in law, and governed within our agency by the most general of policies. This did not prevent us, ever, from arriving at agreements within our group/community settings of ways that we expected to treat one another. Facebook is really just a variation on things that we use to call "selling wolf tickets," or gathering a crowd of uninvolved bystanders to urge two kids into a fight--pumping each of them up by reporting what they other had done/said. I have spent a good bit of time around the kind of table that you describe--where all of the he-said/she-said details are laid out.

Resolution requires an overall commitment to some basic standards of behavior towards one another, and responsibility for one another. As the adult, it requires some confrontation of the behavior of the actual "doers" as well as all of the "spreaders" of information. Friends don't try to make their friends fight. Getting back at someone is not a good strategy for building a peaceful community.

I find the typical tools of discipline used by schools (suspension/expulsion) to be very weak responses, in terms of changing behavior. What I have always found to be more successful is to go through the learning process of each one admitting their role in the current problem (and they do admit this is a problem--and they are relying on you, the adult, to help them solve it), and determining a course of action. This is usually the fun part--those early adolescent girls are generally full of ideas of things that they can do (together) to heal the rift. They can form a good deeds club, or write a peace song, or post posters all over the school to remind others not to pick on their friends, or plant a peace garden (they probably want to have a dance or party for the whole school).

None of these things require a law, or a policy or a procedure. They do make a difference.

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