teen girl looking at cell phone, upset

More states are passing laws specifically regulating bullying and harassment in schools. Although these laws vary, the message is clear: Bullying and harassment will not be tolerated.

In New York, for example, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) mandates that school districts:

  • Include instruction that supports the development of a discrimination-​free culture
  • Establish a code of conduct addressing harassment, which includes response guidelines
  • Designate a Dignity Act Coordinator and provide employee training to raise awareness
  • Provide employees with a way to prevent and respond to incidents of discrimination and/or harassment

At Algonquin Middle School in Averill Park, NY, we embraced this mandate. We had been providing antiharassment and bullying awareness in our curriculum for five years. The Code of Conduct was swiftly changed and additional training was implemented. I became the Dignity Act Coordinator which, at the time, seemed to be just overseeing what already was being done and being a point person for students who felt harassed. Effective July 2013, the act was amended to include cyberbullying that occurred at home, which could create a potential risk of disruption within the school environment. Schools were forced to look beyond routine forms of discipline in an effort to end harassment. As educators, it is now essential that we protect our students in new ways, as harassment is entering our students’ homes through the ever-changing phenomenon of social media.

A Call to Arms

The nature of cyberbullying is complex and new, and as a result we need a multipronged approach to intervention. Due to the herculean task of addressing all bullying that occurs on social media sites, we decided to reach out to other agencies to develop alternate strategies to address these issues more successfully.

The Rensselaer County School Safety Task Force was developed as a joint venture between the Averill Park Central School District, the Rensselaer County Probation Department, and Rensselaer County Office of Mental Health to address  the increasing burden placed on schools to handle the problem of cyber harassment. As a result of reaching out to these agencies, they, in turn, invited Child Protective Services, the Rensselaer County Attorney’s Office, local law enforcement agencies, and other school districts to join. The goal of the agency was simple: Help us implement new approaches to decrease harassment in light of the new landscape of cyberbullying (see sidebar).

It Takes a Team Effort

The problem of cyberbullying is a complex one. Because of this, we employ a multidisciplinary model that includes prevention efforts to improve school climate, law enforcement intervention to provide motivation for change, and, if necessary for chronic offenders, a chance to involve mental health services with a unique treatment approach designed to address that specific issue.

Rensselaer County Probation Officers Christine Miner and Kate Rose developed an interactive program targeting grades 7–9 on safe social media use and the effects of making poor choices on social networking sites. They outline this program in all school districts that have joined the coalition. Additionally, the program addresses the legal consequences of poor social media choices, such as “sexting” as a minor. These very dedicated officers also created a program for staff and parents to keep them apprised of the most recent social media sites, current issues, and preferred responses.

Police Protocols

Law enforcement officers have helped area school districts understand certain protocols that need to be followed in situations involving sexual social media contact with a minor. Without realizing it, schools can sometimes inadvertently undermine a police investigation. The coalition has helped school districts develop a flow chart of actions that should be taken prior to a probation officer’s involvement with the goal of providing the district with guidance and outlining specifically what services were being provided to students who have been harassed. It is an important step that should be done by every district that is truly invested in improving school climate.

Mental Health Services

Working with Rensselaer County Mental Health provider Michelle Marte, a program was developed to more effectively address chronic cyber harassers—the bully who does not respond to the deluge of in-school consequences, mediation, phone calls to the home, and parent meetings. This type of harasser presents us with a need to re-examine what we have historically thought about bullies (that kids bully because they were bullied and because they suffer from low self-esteem). In this case, our target demographic becomes the harasser who does not appear to struggle with self-esteem issues and, in fact, seems to have a heightened sense of self. The approach incorporates family counseling to assist parents in setting limits and imposing consequences, and offers law enforcement involvement to mandate the harasser to treatment. Without such a mandate, both the offender and his or her family will likely drop out of counseling.

Addressing cyberbullying will continue to change as technology morphs into the next popular thing. Our job as educators is to look beyond what has become routine and embrace new forms of discipline that protect our students as much as possible.

Sidebar: The Rensselaer County School Safety Task Force: Defining Parameters

  1. Meetings must be manageable—one hour, once a month. No exceptions. The group is comprised of police officers, attorneys, superintendents, principals, probation officers, etc., all of whom are extremely busy.
  2. Meetings are run efficiently with a clear agenda. We allow 50 minutes to discuss agenda items; the last 10 minutes we assign tasks to members to complete before the next meeting.
  3. Any ongoing, significant harassment issue takes precedence over an existing agenda item. Knowing how to effectively prioritize is paramount.
  4. Meetings must produce tangible outcomes. The outcome should not be yet another meeting to discuss the agenda for the next meeting.

Sidebar: How to implement an antibullying and harassment program—including cyberbullying—in your school district:

Ask for help. Ask people you trust and who are interested to join a coalition. This is your initiative, not a state mandate, so invite only positive, self-motivated people.

Keep your mission simple. Developing a mission statement can provide good guidelines, but don’t let its formation eat up lots of time. Come to your first meeting with a basic mission, and try to reach consensus. It should take 10 minutes.

Invite people from different disciplines. It is essential to have many different perspectives and many different experts at your table (law enforcement, county mental health professionals, etc.).

Get administrative support. We have a series of superintendents and principals attending our meetings. Without district support at high levels, this initiative never would have gotten off the ground.

Come in with a very basic agenda. Let the group tell you what is needed. We have five to six districts at our coalition meeting each month, and each has presented a unique scenario and need for the group’s consideration and feedback.

Linda Bille is a certified social worker who has worked for the Averill Park Central School District in Averill Park, NY, for 15 years.