By David Hinojosa, J.D., IDRA Newsletter, May 2017
As the use of social media and cell phones continues to expand and connect students more readily in important ways, so too does the rising threat of cyberbullying. Whether it concerns students “trolling” other students on Twitter because of their perceived gender, sending continuous text messages harassing a student because of their race, or posting repeated disparaging pictures implicating a student’s religion or immigration status on Instagram, cyberbullying comes in many forms.
While reports vary on whether cyberbullying is increasing, a conservative estimate in the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that one in six students is subjected to cyberbullying (MMWR, 2016).
Research shows that cyberbullying can increase the likelihood that bullied students use alcohol and drugs, skip school, receive poor grades, have lower self-esteem and experience health problems (www.stopbullying.gov). However, finding the right solution is not always easy.
School boards and state policymakers must balance civil liberties concerns invoking free speech with the need to intervene and protect students from harassment and cyberbullying, even occurring outside the school setting. They must address the need to fairly discipline the bully while ensuring that loss of learning time is minimized.
Schools must balance several other concerns with the ultimate goal of providing a safe and healthy learning environment for all students. This article provides some key insights into how state and schools can adopt equitable policies to help prevent or stop bullying in systemic ways.
Defining what conduct constitutes cyberbullying is often where policymakers begin, and definitions can range from the simple to the complex (Kowalski, et al., 2015). Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as: repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior among school-age children involving a real or perceived power imbalance. Cyberbullying is defined as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology,” which includes the use of cell phones, tablets and social media sites.
While the two are obviously related, there are differences. For example, because cyberbullies often perceive themselves as anonymous, it opens up the pool of potential bullies who might not otherwise bully someone in person. The round-the-clock availability of several different modes of cyber communications also can heighten the threat of cyberbullying.
Furthermore, the concept of anonymity may significantly reduce chances for empathy or remorse by perpetrators because they cannot readily see how their victims are affected by their actions (Kowalski, et al., 2015). Accordingly, many anti-bullying laws and policies should be revised to take into account these contextual differences.
In defining cyberbullying in state and local laws, several experts and researchers strongly suggest that the definition explicitly enumerate protected classes of students (i.e., GLSEN).
Another recommendation is that the reach of the law goes beyond the schoolyard and into off-campus behaviors that substantially disrupt the learning environment, including cyber communications (Hinduja & Patchin, 2015).
On the issue of enforcement, states and local school districts should ensure that they do not overreact in response to a highly publicized, traumatizing bullying incident by criminalizing every behavior. Criminalizing behavior can induce student disengagement, incarceration and ostracism of vulnerable populations (GLSEN, nd).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service managed website, stopbullying.gov, identifies the following “Key Components in State Anti-Bullying Laws” and provides examples of various state policies reflecting the components.
- Purpose Statement – describes negative effects caused by bullying and states that all forms of bullying are unacceptable and will be taken seriously;
- Statement of Scope – describes the reach of conduct subject to school interventions, including off-campus activities that significantly disrupt the school environment;
- Specification of Prohibited Conduct – provides a clear definition of both bullying and cyberbullying, including a non-exhaustive listing of specific behaviors prohibited;
- Enumeration of Specific Characteristics – includes actual and perceived student characteristics but also makes clear that bullying need not be based on any specific student characteristic;
- Development and Implementation of School District Policies – requires school districts to develop and implement anti-bullying preventative policies through a collaborative process with all stakeholders, including parents, families and staff;
- Components of School District Policies – requires local policies to include definitions, reporting requirements, investigation and response procedures, written recordkeeping, graduated sanctions, and counseling referrals for the perpetrator and the victim, as well as families;
- Review of Local Policies – ensures regular review of policies to ensure goals are met;
- Communication Plan – includes processes for meaningfully notifying students, parents/guardians and staff of bullying policies;
- Training and Preventive Education – requires schools to provide training for all teaching and non-teaching school staff on preventing, identifying, and responding to bullying and cyberbullying;
- Transparency and Monitoring – requires school districts to report annually to the state and the public, the number of reported bullying incidents and responsive actions taken;
- Statement of Rights to Other Legal Recourse – ensures that victims are aware that they may pursue other legal recourse; and
- Model Policy – ensures that school districts can access equitable model policies and adapt as necessary to address any local needs or requirement.
Local policies also should reflect the adoption of more positive, preventative and comprehensive bullying strategies. For example, using a relational youth violence framework, schoolwide interventions can be integrated into the curriculum and local policies, as opposed to the mere traditional practice of documenting the incident and addressing it as an individual action (Bahena, 2017). Examples of this type of preventative strategy include curricula that incorporate understanding and acceptance of differences and building upon relationships across differences, direct engagement with students on the role of power and inequities, and implementation of restorative justice practices (Bahena, 2017).
Local policies should engender practices that result in students and educators developing positive problem-solving skills, providing a safe haven of supportive families and adults whom students can trust and turn to, and creating a positive school climate (CDC, 2016a). These practices can help prevent bullying on the front end and address factors that contribute to a higher likelihood of bullying including “externalizing problems, such as defiant and disruptive behavior, harsh parenting by caregivers, and attitudes accepting of violence” (CDC, 2016b).
When cyberbullying overlaps with issues of race, national origin, gender/sex, or religion, not only may state and local policies be implicated, but so too may federal civil rights laws (OCR DCL, 2010). If this occurs, the Region II federally-funded equity assistance center, the IDRA EAC-South, may be able to assist your school, district, or state in addressing and preventing the bullying and cyberbullying. Through expert staff and access to consultants across the region and nationally, our center may provide you with a range of universal, targeted or intensive technical assistance and training. If you require assistance, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ali, R. (October 26, 2010). Dear Colleague Letter: Harassment and Bullying (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights).
Bahena, S. (2017). “Relational Youth Violence – Protecting Muslim Youth in School,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016a). Prevent Bullying, website (Atlanta, Ga.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016b). Understanding Bullying, fact sheet (Atlanta, Ga.: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (June 10, 2016). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2015, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Atlanta, Ga.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
GLSEN. (no date). Model District Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policy (New York, N.Y.: LSEN, Inc.).
Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J.W. (2015). Cyberbullying Legislation and Case Law – Implications for School Policy and Practice (Orlando, Fla.: Cyberbullying Research Center).
Kowalski, R., Guimette, G., Schroeder, A., & Lattiner, M. (2014). “Bullying in the Digital Age: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of Cyberbullying Research Among Youth,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 140, No. 4, 1073-1137.
David Hinojosa, J.D., is IDRA’s National Director of Policy and directs the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.