School violence, the threat of violence, and harassment continues to worry educators locally, nationally and internationally. Although violence exits in its rawest form, i.e., shootings, rape, kidnapping, and bomb threats; more passive and pervasive forms of harassment and/or bullying also exist.
As we know bullying is as old as civilization itself. It has taken forms such as intimidation for lunch money, a slap on the head, a skirt pulled up or pants pulled down, and that seemingly never ending sororities and fraternities use of "beatdowns." We all remember that one person or persons who made someone's life miserable on a daily bases at school; where a student literally lived in fear.
A new level of bullying has come over time with the easy accessibility of cell phones and computers. Cyber bullying, cell phone texting, and cell phone sexting have rapidly become more subtle and prevailing forms of harassment/violent acts within our schools and the lives of our private and public school children. Cyber bullying by federal and state statute definitions includes "bullying or harassment by use of any electronic communication device which can include but is not limited to email, instant messaging, text messages, blogs, mobile phones, pagers, online games, and websites" (Kansas Association of School Boards, Bullying Seminar, September 2008).
Although the most violent school acts and threats continue to receive media attention, (i.e., U.S. v. Lori Drew; Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier; J.S. v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist.) cyber bullying and harassment via the cell phone continue to receive more and more media attention in the past two years. At the writing of this article there is an investigation into the suicide of a 15 year old in rural Massachusetts. Originally from Ireland and only in the U.S. for a few months, the freshman took her own life after being bullied in school and on Facebook.
Cyber bullying can be worse than the school yard variety because a cyber bully can hide behind unsigned attacks on social network.
Just as acts of violence …jeopardizes the intent of the school to be free of aggression against persons or property…disruptions, and disorder (Center for the Prevention of School Violence, 2000, p. 2), cyber bullying and textual harassment are equally disruptive and threatening. In fact, cyber bullying can be worse than the traditional school yard variety because a cyber bully can remain anonymous by posting unsigned attacks on his/her online social network. Although Liza Belkin, 2010, was referring to parents of young children her comments are just as important in this text. She reports that "[the] anonymity of the Internet has a way of bringing out the harsh, judgmental streak in strangers who would never belittle another… in person."
Victims of cyber bullying are literally humiliated in a worldwide venue which can occur 24 hours a day. When bullied in this fashion, whether text or image, it is virtually impossible to get everything removed from cyber space. "The bully [is] spreading information on the Internet for anyone to see and that can affect someone's social life, especially how other kids at school view them. It can also affect the person academically because their lack of confidence will prevent them from contributing and asking questions in class," Louis Cobb, 2007. It has been reported that approximately 61% or more of the teenagers have a social network site and much of the cyber bulling occurs totally off-campus as sites such as MySpace.com, Xanga.com, or Facebook.com; and with no adult supervision or control. It is at sites such as these where hate messages appear, private emails are forwarded, embarrassing photos captured with cell phones are posted, and embarrassing polls are established.
A recent study of stalking via cell phones confirmed that 'stalking' by texting has become a pervasive problem.
In a 2007 PEW Survey completed by Amanda Lenhart, it was reported that "of the 12-17 year old teens surveyed 94% of teens go online, 89% of online teens go online from home, 77% go online at school, 71% go online from a friend or relative's house, 66% go online from a library, and 63% of online teens go online daily. Of those surveyed, it was found that 58% of online teens have a profile online." Additionally, it was reported that "32% of online teens have experience some form of online harassment, i.e., cyber bullying. Finally, it was reported that 32% of online teens have been contacted online by a complete stranger." The NSBA reported at their National Affiliate Webinar-3/12/07 that by some estimates, 50,000 sexual predators are online at any one moment; 89% of sexual solicitations occur in chat rooms and instant messages, 1 in 5 children are solicited for sex, and 25% of those solicited never tell their parents. A study conducted by UCLA psychologists and reported by Jeanna Juvonen in 2006, found that "75% teenagers were bullied online and of those bullied online, 85% also [had] been bullied at school."
A recent study of stalking via cell phones by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released in April of 2009 confirmed that 'stalking' by texting has become a pervasive problem. The report found 23 percent of stalking or harassment victims reported in 2006 that the stalker had used some form of cyber-stalking, i.e., texting or e-mail, to harass their victims. The report went on to say, "Technology has become a quick and easy way for stalkers to monitor and harass their victims." And to make matters worse, victims are charged 20 cents for each message received or sent, wanted or not, if they do not have a cell phone plan that include(s) unlimited texting. So how can we help students avoid technological forms of bullying and harassment? It is true that forty-six states now have anti-stalking laws that refer to electronic forms of communication. (National Conference of State Legislatures) But school personnel need to team with parents to inform, instruct, and protect today's youth. When adults or parents accept bullying or online harassment as an unfortunate stage that some children go through; the potential for those acts to become more violent tends to increase. So, we need to be proactive and work together to protect our children and insure a greater degree of safety.
When adults or those in charge tolerate teasing and bullying by not intervening, they send the message that hurtful words, hateful looks, or craftily surreptitious remarks are acceptable. The perpetrating students conclude by the adults' inaction that their behavior is sanctioned and that they have a right to treat others that way. (Johnson Institute, 1994) Sandra Williams, 2007, tells us to remember "what it was like to be a teen and horribly painful it can be when faced with public humiliation." Adults know that school violence is a complex issue with many and varied causes. Although the causes are often complex and varied, cyber bullying problems are systemic and will require a systematic effort to deal with them (Johnson Institute, 1994). One well accepted solution for creating a safe environment is a systematic approach that includes clear and comprehensive definitions and policies that strive to make students feel respected and protected. Many schools have developed both the definitions and policies, but little is done to continue the dialogue with our students. Too often, the policies become something that is 'simply on the books'!
The United Nations Charter of Rights for Children states in part that every child has the right to an education and the right to be free of violence within that setting. However, when asked, parents and students perceive online bullying and textual harassment as both common and prevalent. How then should school district personnel begin to tackle this serious on-going problem? Recent decisions by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Policy Guidance and federal courts specifically and clearly indicate that school personnel have a duty to create, implement, and consistently enforce policy which assists in the prevention, investigation, and elimination of sexual discrimination and harassment. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that a district is liable if those in charge
- knew or should have known that the harassment was occurring,
- failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action, and
- were deliberately indifferent to that which was occurring (OCR Guidance, 1997).
Having an anti-sexual harassment policy in place to protect students and employees as well as providing prompt and reliable investigation to complaints is commendable, but no longer enough. If school personnel are to respond appropriately when bullying and/or harassment complaints are brought to their attention or assist in the preventing of harassment, we must be proactive. The following are suggested as preventive steps:
- Continue tell students that they must inform parents or school personnel of any and all harassment or bullying.
- Inform parents of available services such as the web site sponsored by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Ad Council and office of Violence Against Women that offers a textual harassment forum where teenagers trade advice and experiences with overzealous or unwanted texting or thatsnotcool.com which offers a e-mailable reply7 "callout cards" that offer a lighter approach to resolve what could be a serious problem. Additional cyber bullying websites include http://cyberbully.org, www.isage.org, and http://stopcyberbullying.org.
- Inform parents and students of the punishable offenses of teen 'sexting', an increasingly popular phenomenon of nude or seminude photos sent over wireless phones. Utilize prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement, or judges to present the legalities and risks of 'sexting' or the sending of nude or seminude nude photos on their cell phones.
- Encouraging parents to make it common practice to check test messages and pictures on their teen's cell phones and to contact law enforcement of threats of violence, obscene, harassing, stalking, or sexually explicit images of teens are found. All parties need to be aware that prosecutors are actively and carefully considering each case.
- Inform parents of different types of monitoring software and filters.
- Keep the public aware of security measures the schools have and are taking to block, filter, and monitor computer activity.
- Keep parents and students informed of the myths and realities of internet-based sexual victimization (UNH2005 Youth & Law Enforcement N-JOV studies)
- Discuss with parents and students the common effects of cyber bullying, i.e., skipping school, declining academic performance, and depression.
- Encourage parents to contact the ISP (Internet Service Provider) and request assistance if cyber bullying happens.
- Update student code of conduct to clarify that bullying by electronic means will be treated as seriously as traditional bullying
- Implement routine maintenance and monitoring of computer use by staff and students.
As indicated in a 1998 U.S. Department of Education publication Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, effective and safe schools are places where there is strong leadership, caring faculty, parent/community involvement, and where prevention and intervention programs are based upon careful assessment of student problems.
Dr. Clim Clayburn, Associate Professor, and Dr. Jerry Will, professor and department chair, work within the Department of School Leadership instructing those who desire to be either building or district office personnel. Prior to their positions at the Emporia State University, Dr. Clayburn and Dr. Will held administrative positions within the public school system.