Cyberbullying: Can schools intervene?

A tragic suicide case in Ohio two years ago raises an important question whose answer seems intuitive but isn’t universally clear. Here’s some clarity.

By Anne Collier

A heart-wrenching student’s suicide thoughtfully reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer illustrates schools’ and families’ struggles over bullying and cyberbullying. It’s not clear how causative the bullying – of a beautiful Croatian student – was in her suicide two years ago, or how much the cruelty continued online, but the article and the accompanying video interview of the student’s family indicate that the aggression against her at Mentor High School, one of Ohio’s biggest, was intense and long-term (she committed suicide more than a year after the school started implementing an anti-bullying program). Part of the tragedy was that local “police have said the schools cannot legally address” the online, off-campus part of the bullying, the president of the Mentor school board told the Plain Dealer. A survivor parent of a Mentor student who had committed suicide previously “said his biggest concern is whether Mentor administrators truly accept the need for change. He suspects they are only punishing physical violence, while letting verbal taunts slide.”

The Plain Dealer’s account included this important point for people reading about tragic cases like this to be aware of: “While bullying can trigger a person to take his own life, more than 90% of suicides stem from an underlying psychiatric problem such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse, said Madelyn Gould, a professor of clinical epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. What’s not so clear is whether bullying also leads to the underlying problems or whether they set the stage for being bullied.” This is why, Gould also told the Plain Dealer, schools need to watch vulnerable students closely and not let the fact that the harassment occurs off-campus be an excuse for lack of care for students being victimized.

Were the police correct, if quoted correctly, in telling the school it could not legally address off-campus student aggression? No, says Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. “Schools [nationwide] have the authority to respond to off-campus speech if that speech has caused, or there are reasons to predict it could cause, a substantial disruption at school or interference with students’ right to be secure.” That’s the legal standard, she said in an email, and “there are three common situations where this standard has been applied: actual or threat of violent altercations, significant interference with the ability of any student to receive an education or participate in school activities, or significant interference with the delivery of instruction/school operations.” Wrote Mike Donlin, consultant to schools and a former school administrator, in another email about off-campus cyberbullying, “Not only can we [schools] intervene, we must!”

For schools seeking expert help, Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren and Clinton Counties in Ohio have developed “Dealing with Suicide in Schools: Prevention, Intervention and Postvention – A Model Protocol.” On that page are links to lots of resources for both schools and parents. The resource was recommended to me by Dr. Dawna Cricket Meehan in the Psychology Department of Miami University in Ohio (she would like to hear from schools that use the protocol so let me know via anne[at]

Related links

*The Youth Voice Project at Penn State, Erie, that surveyed 12,000 students in 25 schools in 12 states reported last year that 42% of students said they reported bullying to an adult at school, and of that 42% only about a third of the situations improved with adult intervention (so “school intervention” is far from a guaranteed solution). [See this post for more Youth Voice Project findings.]
* A year ago, ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid explored “When schools can discipline off-campus behavior” with a number of legal experts
* “Phoebe Prince [bullying] story: Much more than meets the eye”
* “Really sound cyberbullying advice for parents, schools”
* “Schools’ cyberbullying quandary”
* “Click, cliques & cyberbullying: Whole school response is key”

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