Defining the School Cyberbullying Problem
All schools, parents and students are struggling to address and contain the growing cyberbullying problem. While bullying itself is difficult to prevent, cyberbullying is much harder. It starts online and moves offline, or starts offline and moves online or starts and stays online. It happens during the school day on student-owned devices as well as school computers. It happens off-premises, after-hours and bleeds into the school day. As Parry Aftab has said repeatedly, and the volunteers at WiredSafety who handle cyberbullying cases and help victims and their families know, there is no silver bullet. There is no one answer. But there are many ways to attack the problem, piece by piece.
Schools have approached this in different ways. Many schools have adopted policies and rules that the parents and students have to sign before the students are permitted to use the Internet at school. Some are using filtering products. Others are sending notices to parents and setting policies for safe and acceptable use. Some are trying to regulate student activities after hours and off-premises. And, when they overstep their authority, schools are finding themselves named in lawsuits for infringing on a student's free speech or due process rights. Far too often, schools lose these lawsuits.
There is no "one size fits all" here. Solutions need to be customized to take into consideration the school's technology uses and staffing, curriculum, students' needs and behavior, parents' concerns, and community values. It is more a matter of awareness about the problem areas than the specific laws, which change often and vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. All good lawyers know how to spot a potential legal problem. Good school administrators and educators, unfortunately, in these difficult times do, too.
The new issues, such as cyberbullying and how far a school's authority can extend, and social networking websites, such as Instagram and Facebook.com (among others), create challenges to grapple with and emotional parental responses. Where do we start? We all need to remember that we are still learning, often the hard way. Children are very innovative in abusing the Internet and each other. Sometimes they do this intentionally. But almost as often, they hurt each other with miscommunications, poor digital literacy and hygiene skills.
Just when we think we understand the risks and have worked out solutions, they surprise us with their innovations. But, if parents, school administrators and school boards, teachers, school safety officers, students, guidance counselors and librarians and library-media specialists work together and keep the lines of communication open, we'll keep making progress. All we have to do is hold out until this new generation of Internet-savvy students become parents, teachers, and school administrators themselves.