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Cyber Savvy:
Supporting Safe and
Responsible Internet Use

Prevention and Intervention


Without a doubt, the youth online concern that’s most impacting schools is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or by engaging in other forms of social aggression using the Internet or other digital technologies.

Cyberbullying includes activities that have real-world equivalents, such as fights, direct harassment, indirect denigration, and exclusion. Cyberbullying also includes “creative" electronic variations exclusive to technology, such as using technology to impersonate someone for the purpose of damaging that person’s reputation or friendships, and making private electronic communications public. In addition, digital imaging technologies provide the ability to capture and disseminate embarrassing images, including locker room shots and fights, as well as the ability to create embarrassing images, such as placing a girl’s head onto a nude image.

It’s possible that harm caused by cyberbullying might be greater than harm caused by traditional bullying. Online communications can be extremely vicious. There is no escape for those who are being cyberbullied -- victimization can be ongoing, 24/7. Cyberbullying material can be distributed worldwide and is often irretrievable. Cyberbullies can be anonymous and can solicit the involvement of unknown allies. Teens might be reluctant to tell adults what is happening online or through their cell phones because they are emotionally traumatized, think it’s their fault, fear greater retribution, or fear their own online activities or cell phone use will be restricted.

Cyberbullying frequently is related to in-school bullying. Sometimes, the student who is victimized at school also is being bullied online. Other times, the person who is victimized at school becomes a cyberbully, retaliating online. When school officials respond to a report of cyberbullying, it’s exceptionally important to take the time to fully investigate the situation -- through an analysis of online, as well as real-world interactions. Students should be held accountable for harmful material posted online, but punishing the student who is being victimized at school for responding to the victimization online only will increase the potential for harm.

It is necessary to consider the ability, authority, and responsibility of school officials when it comes to prevention of, and intervention in, cyberbullying in the locations where school related cyberbullying occurs.

  • Ability: Is it permissible for school officials to engage in an activity or are school officials capable of engaging in an activity?
  • Authority: Can school officials impose formal discipline as a consequence to an incident?
  • Responsibility: Does the district have a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to address the concern? (“Reasonable precautions" is the standard by which official school activity would be assessed in any liability cause of action.)

School officials must be mindful of three locations where cyberbullying can occur, in which different aspects of ability, authority, and responsibility are relevant. Those three locations are: on the district Internet, on personal digital devices at school, and on the Internet off campus.

Using the District Internet
Students can engage in cyberbullying while using the district Internet system. That might occur in school during the school day, in school during after school activities, or off-campus using a school-owned laptop. If a student can send an electronic message using the district Internet system, students can engage in cyberbullying. Many students know how to bypass the district Internet filter to get to places like MySpace or to get to their own Web mail account.

School officials have the authority to impose formal discipline in response to cyberbullying by students who are using the district Internet system. That authority extends to all those times when students are using the district Internet system.

School officials have the ability to supervise and monitor the district Internet system. That includes technical monitoring, which I strongly recommend.

School officials have the responsibility to ensure that student use of the district Internet system does not inflict harm on other students, and must take reasonable precautions to ensure that that does not occur. Reasonable precautions would include specific policy provisions against such misuse, effective supervision and monitoring, encouraging students to report misuse, and effective intervention when such reports are made.

Using Personal Digital Devices at School
Students also can engage in cyberbullying at school while using personal digital devices, including cell phones, PDAs, digital cameras, or personal laptops. School officials have the authority to impose formal discipline in cases of cyberbullying that occur at school and during school hours while using personal digital devices.

School officials do not have as much ability to engage in effective supervision and monitoring of student use of those devices because the telecommunications are occurring outside the district’s Internet system (thus officials have no ability to technically monitor these transmissions). Therefore, the degree to which school officials can be held responsible is different than when students are using the district Internet system.

School officials still would bear responsibility for harm caused by students using personal digital devices at school, however it is likely that the question of the reasonableness of the prevention efforts would be assessed differently, given the inability of school officials to specifically monitor those transmissions. Reasonable precautions likely include policies prohibiting cyberbullying, policies regarding when and where personal digital devices can be used, in-place reporting systems, and effective intervention.

Another issue of importance is related to the review of electronic records of personal electronic devices. Under wiretapping laws, consent must be provided before anyone can monitor or review telephonic communications. Minors are not able to give legal consent. In most instances related to cyberbullying, school officials can obtain consent to review personal digital communications from the parents of a child receiving cyberbullying messages. School districts might want to consider using an implied consent policy approach to allow for greater review. (More guidance on that issue will be posted on my Web site this summer.)

Cyberbullying Off Campus
The majority of cyberbullying occurs outside school. School officials might wish to ignore the off-campus activities, but that really isn’t possible or advisable. If the cyberbullying participants also are together in school, off-campus activity can impact significantly the school climate, interfere with the ability of students to be successful in school, and even lead to school violence.

Cyberbullying that occurs off campus frequently involves minor disputes that the students themselves or their parents can and should resolve. Education of students and parents about how to prevent and resolve such incidents can be very helpful. Clearly, school officials have the ability to provide such education -- and should.

Other cyberbullying incidents cause more significant harm. The legal standard that U.S. courts have applied regarding when school officials have the authority to respond to off-campus online incidents is the Tinker standard.

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. 393 U.S. 503 (1969). In Killion v. Franklin Reg. Sch. Dist., 136 F. Supp. 2d 446 (W.D. Pa. 2001) the court found that the student’s off-campus online speech did not cause a substantial disruption at school. In J.S. v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., 757 A.2d 412 (Pa. Commw. 2000), the court found that the student’s off-campus speech did cause a substantial disruption.

School officials may impose formal discipline when the off-campus online speech has caused or threatens to cause substantial disruption on campus or interference with the rights of students to be secure.

In a number of states, including Washington and Oregon, it appears that the ACLU is attempting to use the creation of state statutes addressing cyberbullying as a way to prevent school officials from responding to anycyberbullying that has occurred off campus. To prevent school violence, school officials must be diligent in ensuring that they retain the authority to respond to off-campus online speech that has created or threatens to create a substantial disruption or interference with student security. Contact me for assistance!

This is an example of an incident that occurred in North Eugene High School: Three students, two Caucasian and one African American were involved in a dispute at school. The principal thought he had resolved the dispute. Shortly after, the Caucasian students created a highly racist profile on MySpace, with cartoons of lynching and racist language. Other students at the high school started to join the site as “friends." The African-American student found out and told the Black Student Association, and, fortunately, the principal. The principal investigated fully to ensure he had accurately identified the students who created the site and he suspended them.

Did this incident meet the Tinker standard? Quite clearly. The incident presented a situation that threatened to cause substantial disruption on campus and also was clearly creating a hostile environment that impaired the rights of students to be secure. Because the principal had the authority to respond, a very important message about respect was delivered and the potential for disruption was addressed.

If there are ever questions about whether the Tinker standard has been met, school officials still have the ability to respond informally. I advise that they do so; if students or parents have contacted the school, that is a clear indication that they do not know how to resolve the incident on their own and require assistance. It is preferable, in my opinion, to intervene informally early, rather than wait until the situation has risen to the level of meeting the Tinker standard.

Furthermore, under standards of parental negligence, it is far easier to hold a parent liable for harmful acts of their child if the parent has actual notice. The informal resolution efforts of a school official certainly would provide that actual notice. Informing parents of their potential liability can act as a significant “motivator" for proactive intervention. The Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying on my site outlines that issue and can be provided to parents by school officials.

The Tinker standard also represents the outside boundary for authority and responsibility. If the off-campus online speech does not cause or threaten substantial disruption or interference, school officials do not have the authority to respond formally and, therefore, do not have the responsibility to respond. It is likely that they do have the responsibility to respond if they are informed about the presence of such activities and make the assessment that a substantial disruption or interference has been caused or is likely to be caused.

Cyberbullying is a new concern that clearly impacts school safety. Frequently, school personnel responsible for student safety do not have a sophisticated understanding of technology, and education-technology personnel do not have a sophisticated understanding of school safety issues. A merger is necessary. My book, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress, provides guidance on the development of a comprehensive approach to address cyberbullying and effective strategies to review and respond to specific incidents.

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