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Why Schools Are Getting Sued for Cyberbullying

An assembly and a zero-tolerance policy is not enough.

Nicholas Carlisle | September 6, 2016

Recently I received a call from the family of a high school student who had committed suicide. His peers had filmed him engaged in a very personal activity in the school bathroom and posted the video online. Three weeks later he killed himself. Would I serve as an expert witness in a court case against the school district for cyberbullying?

This was not the first time that I had been asked to help in a bullying claim against a school. Previously, I had been brought in by a well-respected private school where the seventh-graders had posted a video of a student jumping a girl in the school yard, pushing her to the ground, and simulating intercourse, which was followed by a stream of group texts to the girl accusing her of being a slut.

I also served in a case where a sixth-grade girl was threatened with stabbing and physically attacked while getting off the school bus and making her way home. Bystanders used their phones to record the fight between the girl's mother, who was waiting at the bus stop, and the harassing students. The video was later posted online. Graphic and disturbing cases such as these are part of the cyberbullying reality for many students.

As I read the depositions from the high school where the student took his own life, I was struck that well-meaning teachers and administrators had created a culture where cyberbullying was rife. They did not want cyberbullying on their campus and were as shaken as anybody by the harm that had been done. However, they made some basic errors that, paradoxically, contributed to the harm.

1. They believed that having a bullying/cyberbullying policy was enough. The school had adopted its district's anti-bullying policy, which said that bullying and cyberbullying would not be tolerated on its campus. The principal told us that he gave the policy to his staff at the start of each year as part of a big packet of policies, though he admitted that "they had 9,000 other things to attend to on campus." He believed that signing off on the policy was sufficient. He provided no training for his staff on what constitutes bullying/cyberbullying, how to interrupt bullying when it occurs, and how to get students help. Without clear and easy reporting, the anti-bullying policy was meaningless.

2. There was no systematic investment in digital citizenship. Student witnesses said that the freshmen attended one assembly as part of their orientation; there, they were told to stay away from bullying. That was the totality of the skill-building they received, a horrifying omission given that the average high school student spends over 30 hours a week online.

3. The school had a zero-tolerance approach to bullying/cyberbullying. The school believed a zero-tolerance policy on bullying was the best way to create a bully-free campus. Intuitively this might seem an effective approach. However, the effect of zero-tolerance policies with automatic penalties for proscribed activities is the opposite. Several staff members we spoke to said that cyberbullying was a criminal matter that required police involvement, even though it's rare that a case has a sufficient level of threatened physical harm to warrant this. Students told us that the school's hard-line stance made them worried that reporting cyberbullying would get another student in trouble. We knew from student surveys that over 20 percent of the 1,000 students at the school had experienced cyberbullying. Only three or four students contacted the school that year to ask for help. The ultimate result of the zero-tolerance policy? Cyberbullying was driven underground.

There are some important lessons here -- not simply to help your school avoid being sued but to prevent the lives lost or forever changed by cyberbullying.

  • Teach your students digital citizenship. Digital citizenship is social and emotional learning translated to the internet and social media, where most students spend the majority of their time, and it's the best remedy for cyberbullying. Teach the full range of skills that students will need online; do not limit teaching to cyberbullying alone. Common Sense Media has outstanding modules for all grade levels that you can download for free after registration.
  • Make it easy for everyone to get help with cyberbullying. Make reporting as easy as possible for your students, teachers, and parents. The reporting flows are not necessarily the same for each of these groups. Often it brings clarity to map out the reporting flows in the form of a flowchart. Write this up as an anti-bullying policy that covers bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment. Then train all the adults on campus, and train your students and parents on how to follow the anti-bullying policy. Otherwise your policy is just an empty piece of paper. No Bully, the nonprofit that I started, helps schools with policy writing, teacher training, and leadership coaching.
  • Use Solution Team to solve ongoing bullying/cyberbullying. One of the many unintended consequences of taking a punitive approach to bullying is that it drives underground. No Bully developed Solution Team to focus on solutions instead of punishment. Under Solution Team, a teacher brings bullying students together with respected students, tells them they're not in trouble, walks them into the shoes of a student being bullied, and leverages their empathy to bring the situation to an end. This initial meeting is reinforced with two short meetings over the next two weeks. Schools that implement Solution Team find that it increases student willingness to report. They are able to resolve over 90 percent of bullying cases with students from kindergarten through high school.