How schools deal with cyberbullying

By Anne Collier

When social aggression gets crossed with technology, society seems to go right into fight-or-flight mode. It seems too often schools either do nothing or reflexively offload the cases to law enforcement when students impersonate others or create fake profiles on social sites in order to harass or bully peers or staff members. The behavior is not to be condoned, but little if anything is learned when schools respond purely reactively with suspension, expulsion, or calling in law enforcement. “It’s critical for schools to work with law-enforcement and mental-health officials to develop policies and procedures before such a situation occurs,” Ed Week reports, citing the view of Nancy Willard of the Eugene, Ore.-based Center for Safety & Responsible Internet Use. Two years ago, psychology professor Alan Yazdin at Yale University and Carlo Rotella at Boston College wrote in Slate that, “because a bully’s success depends heavily on context, “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 added, involves “the entire school, including administration, teachers, and peers” (see this on how a whole-school approach is needed).

Some students’ behavior “can now be deemed illegal under state cyberbullying laws or even cyber-impersonation and identity-theft laws,” Ed Week reports. In cases involving fake profiles, ID theft laws have been used in New Jersey, and “California, New York, and Texas all have laws against cyber or digital impersonation.” EdWeek reports that students creating fake profiles “are getting caught up in the criminal-justice system in a way that’s reminiscent of the student ‘sexting’ incidents from a few years ago” and quotes Prof. Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center as saying that the application of identity theft laws “overstep what the original laws for identity theft were written for.” The good news is, law enforcement in some states are assigning “young offenders” to diversion and restorative justice programs instead of the court system, and some schools are creating policies that call for working with students before calling law enforcement. It’s always encouraging to see signs of intelligent life in school systems (where social media are concerned).

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