Great advice to schools on cyberbullying

By Anne Collier

I don’t think research on this exists, but it looks like a lot of schools are still laboring under the misconception that they can’t do anything about bullying among students that’s “off-campus” because online. School administrators need to be freed of that misconception fast. Even if only one student is being targeted, “off-campus” aggression is substantially disruptive because it not only affects that student’s ability to learn, it puts his or her psychological – and sometimes physical – safety at risk. Rarely, though, does online harassment involve only one or two students.

If school administrators have any doubt, says risk prevention specialist Alison Trachtman Hill of Critical Issues for Girls in New York, “they should make certain to learn about their state’s laws about getting involved in off-campus speech and how their state has interpreted this issue around signficant learning disruption. It seems that educators often think they can’t get involved in cyberbullying that happens outside school, but there are ways they can.”

Says Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, “the most important thing they can do is make sure there is a multidisciplinary team working on these issues” at the district, if not school, level.” The team is constituted of a librarian [media specialist], counselor or health teacher, administrator, and school resource officer. It usually helps a great deal to have student members of the team as well.

Alison Trachtman Hill pointed out that “the American School Counselor Association updated its ethical standards. Now, confronting cyberbullying is an ethical obligation for school counselors. Section A.10.e of the Ethical Standards for School Counselors states that school counselors should, ‘Consider the extent to which cyberbullying is interfering with students’ educational process and base guidance curriculum and intervention programming for this pervasive and potentially dangerous problem on research-based and best practices.”

When an incident does occur and an investigation needs to happen (because incidents are rarely start where or when adults become aware of them or when they’re manifest in Facebook), I hope the goal isn’t to punish students. As I wrote last February with the help of education consultant Mike Donlin in Seattle, the immediate goal is support for the targeted student(s) [who may be experiencing psychological harm] and restoration of order. The ultimate goal is to turn the incident into a learning opportunity for all involved. This “teachable moment,” which may benefit the entire school community, should focus on the areas of critical thinking, mindful decision-making, perspective-taking, and citizenship. In the social-media age, when participants’ well-being is a shared experience, we can only change behavior – in schools and online communities – together, as “a village.” [See also “When Can Educators Search Students’ Cell Phones?”, by Prof. Justin Patchin at the Cyberbullying Research Center, and – for some great background and context for all this, “Schools Tackle Legal Twists and Turns of Cyberbullying” at Education Week.]

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