By Linda Childers

The bullying started in fourth grade and continued until high school. And according to the lawsuit, it wasn't just students, but teachers who bullied him both at school and over the Internet. So in 2012, the New Jersey teenager sued his school district for their part in a cyberbullying campaign. In his suit, the New Jersey teen's attorney argued that the school district was liable for not having done more to stop the behavior.

Sadly, incidents and lawsuits such as the New Jersey case aren't isolated occurrences. Cyberbullying, where a student is harassed through social media or other technology is on the rise. In a recent study, an eye-popping 83% of girls and 79% of boys reported being bullied at school or online. Federal and state statutes and case law provide bullying victims and their parents with several potential causes of action against a school and/or school district.

So for the protection of their students, staff and the school in general, it is critically important for administration to have a plan in place for how it will handle cyberbullying incidents.

Currently 49 states require public school districts to adopt their own policies to address the issue, and schools that fail to address cyberbullying may face repercussions.

In order to protect their students and reduce their risk of litigation, schools at the very least must:

  • Implement an effective plan to combat cyberbullying
  • Carry the right insurance to protect their reputation and finances in the event of a lawsuit. With Massachusetts ranking first in the nation when it comes to bully prevention in schools, we asked Robert Pezzella, safety liaison officer for the Worcester Public Schools, and other experts, to share proven strategies for implementing a successful cyberbullying prevention program:

Don't Limit Training to Teachers

Don't let your school or students suffer as the online harassment may take place after school hours, but the fallout can continue at school. For this reason it's important to train all school staff including teachers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers to recognize and respond to incidents of cyberbullying. In the Worcester School District, all instructional (teachers) and non-instructional staff (cafeteria workers, bus drivers, etc.) are trained at the beginning of each school year on what constitutes bullying and are taught anti-bullying policies and procedures.

There are several online resources schools can turn to for information on best practices and training on spotting and preventing cyberbullying.

The Anti Defamation League offers a free bully prevention checklist for schools who want to launch a cyberbullying intervention program.

Steve DeWarns, a police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and founder of Internet Child Safety, a site that offers schools and parents presentations on online safety and promoting responsible use of the Internet, says that along with Massachusetts, schools across the country are taking a proactive approach to cyberbullying.

Educate Students Early

In addition to training teachers and staff, DeWarns notes that schools are also teaching students how to be good digital citizens, and implementing strategies - such as awarding good behavior among students who take a stand against bullying, holding anti-bullying rallies, and working with law enforcement to enforce a zero tolerance policy for cyberbullying.

"Some schools even sponsor special weeks dedicated to cyberbullying awareness where anti-bullying assemblies are held and teachers devote a portion of class to educating students about the harmful effect of cyberbullying," DeWarns says. Common Sense Media offers a free cyberbullying toolkit for educators to educate students of all ages about the dangers of cyberbullying.

Update Policies

Schools need to have policies in place that explicitly state what behaviors it considers to be cyberbullying and how offences will be handled. These documents should be reviewed by school district administration to ensure the policy will hold up in court (in the event of litigation), and meet the laws specified in their state's education codes.

A school's policy on cyberbullying should include:

  1. The school's definition of what constitutes bullying such as posting students photos without the student's permission, sending false, cruel or vicious messages through social media, tricking the person to reveal personal information and revealing that information to others, using social media to post photos and jokes that ridicule others.
  2. The consequences students face if they bully others like expulsion, suspension, and anti-bullying classes.
  3. How the school plans to take action against cyberbullying incidents such as contacting the bully's parents, Internet provider, police, and documenting the process.

Many schools are unaware that they are entitled to use a provision in their Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which gives them the right to discipline students in their school for actions taken off-campus. An AUP should state that harassment by mobile and wireless Internet information technologies on their students will not be tolerated and the culprit will suffer disciplinary action. The provision should not only be written in the school's AUP, but also signed by both students and parents.

School policies should be reviewed on an annual basis to determine if updates are needed (for example, if new sources of social media should be added), and if the plan is successfully addressing bullying issues.

Document all Incidents

When a cyberbullying incident occurs, it's important for schools to document, report and address the behavior. On their website, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers instructions to schools on steps to take immediately when cyberbullying occurs, and how to report cyberbullying to online service providers, and law enforcement.

“Once a student reports a cyberbullying incident, even if it happened outside of school, it’s reported to the principal and recorded on paper,” says safety liaison Pezzella. “We keep a comprehensive paper trail to protect the process and document all of the steps that are being taken to resolve the issue.”

Educate the Aggressor

When a cyberbullying incident has been reported and a student identified as the aggressor, the school should begin an intervention plan to educate the student on the seriousness of their actions. Rather than just punishing the aggressor with suspension, San Francisco police officer DeWarns says many schools are also mandating some form of education to address the root cause of the bullying.

“In Worcester, first time offenders are made aware of what they’re doing,” says Pezzella. “Repeat bully offenders are referred to the BRACE (Bullying Remediation and Court Education), program by teachers or guidance counselors. The full-day school bullying education workshop engages not only the student who was the bullying aggressor, but also his or her family for a day of education that discusses the destructive effects of bullying and the legal and financial consequences of bullying.”

Thirty days following completion of the BRACE program, a school principal will assess the student’s status. If the student’s bullying behavior has continued, school officials will make a determination on future actions, which could include filing a Habitual Offender petition with the court or other appropriate school sanctions.

Be Proactive

Don't let your school or students suffer as the result of cyberbullying. Be proactive about creating a safe environment and documenting and communicating your school's policies and procedures for dealing with this growing threat.
 

The information provided in these materials is intended to be general and advisory in nature. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) will be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations herein are as of 4/20/15.