Lori Getz: In May of 2008, Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., was confronted with a cyberbullying case they felt warranted immediate school action. A student had uploaded a video to YouTube of a group of girls calling an eighth-grade classmate "spoiled," a "brat" and a "slut."
School administrators, after consulting their district's attorneys, decided that the taunting had spilled over onto the campus, and therefore it was their right to discipline.
However, a federal judge did not agree.
In December 2009, the student responsible for uploading the video won her case against the school district, citing her First Amendment right to free speech. The judge felt that, although the girl's actions were juvenile and inappropriate, they did not cause a serious disruption on campus that warranted administrative action.
Who's really charged with disciplining cyberbullies -- the schools, or the parents?
More and more schools are finding themselves in an awkward predicament. Oftentimes, the parents of the victim turn to the school for resolution, while the family of the accused feels that the school has no right to intervene in off-campus disputes.
The real issue is that the law just hasn't caught up with technology! According to the Anti-Defamation League, 44 states currently have anti-bullying laws in place to protect students, but less than half of them include "electronic communication." The laws also vary as to when a school can become involved in discipline. There's just no clear-cut answer for school officials who are asking, "What do we do about cyberbullying?"
"It doesn't always even make it to us," said Will Bladt, director of L.A.'s Brentwood School. "Kids really want to keep this on the down-low and would prefer not to get the grownups involved." Bladt explained that his approach is really one of education rather than strict discipline. Also, he always involves the parents in off-campus scuttles that make their way onto campus. "Last year, we got involved in four cyberbullying cases," he said. "Each time, we asked the parents of the accused to come to school for a meeting, where we asked the culprits to explain the situation. Then we asked that parents follow up with what we consider to be a reasonable measure: taking away the technology for a period of time."
I have to say, I love this approach! The school acts as the educator, and the parent becomes the enforcer. I also like the idea of the parent becoming more involved in knowing how their child is using technology. By taking it away (even if it's for a short period of time; make sure the punishment fits the crime), you are giving the child a cooling-off period so they don't get themselves into more trouble by going home and immediately posting their feelings on Facebook.
Schools are there to educate, and sometimes that means educating the parents, too. It's important for schools to begin forming alliances between the educators, parents and students, in order to create a culture of citizenship both on- and offline.
Last week, during a House Education subcommittee hearing, experts, educators and even Dr. Phil weighed in on cyberbullying in schools as the subcommittee examined safety concerns for children, tweens and teens related to technology (particularly social networking and mobile devices).
Everyone agrees that education is key, but no one is really looking at HOW to achieve it. I believe that digital-citizenship training needs to start much earlier, and that we must begin focusing on the behavior rather than the medium. When we talk about "community" to first graders, why not include cyberspace in the conversation? When we talk about strangers, we need to talk about online strangers, too. Discussions about character should include "Netiquette" (our online manners). And we need to stop thinking that if we talk about these online issues once, it will stick with kids. It DOESN'T! How many times have you had to tell your kid to look both ways before he crosses the street, or to not chew with his mouth open, or to respect his elders? Right: a lot more than once.
But as we attempt to catch up, schools need better-defined guidelines as to their role in the digital realm. Every school should have anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying policies in their codes of conduct or acceptable-use policies. That way, students and parents will know what is expected of them and their children. Also, parents should talk to their children about what it is to be a bully -- and what to do if they are a victim.
For more information on talking to your children about cyberbullying, see "How to Really Talk to Your Kids about Cyberbullying."