student on a computer being consoled by motherSchools must partner with families to take effective action 

Cyberbullying. Is it a school problem or one that parents should deal with at home? Actually, it’s both. Unfortunately, school action against cyberbullying continues to be thwarted by court decisions that protect cyberbullying as free speech and that restrict school jurisdiction to cyberbullying incidents that occur on campus. 

Until the law catches up with today’s realities, what are school principals to do? How can principals work with families to ensure that online safety is being taught and addressed both at school and at home?

Home Strategies

It’s impossible to have an effective antibullying strategy without involving families in general, and those whose children have been subjected to bullying, in particular. Here’s some guidance for principals on that front: 

1. Don’t ignore the issue. When students report instances of disrespectful online interactions, student concerns must be honored and taken seriously. No matter how minor or silly the issue may seem to an adult, it is not so to a student. Principals are in an excellent position to encourage families to allow for open dialogue at home, where students hopefully feel they can go to their parents for support. Remind parents that issues involving students online is a concern for the school as well; open communication between home and school is critical for making sure students are safe.

2. Reiterate school strategies. It takes lots of practice before a habit is formed. Encourage parents to reteach the strategies shared by the school for appropriate online behavior, including responding to disrespectful discourse. These strategies may be shared with parents throughout the year, during parent-teacher conferences, at back-to-school night, and in newsletters, email blasts, or any other vehicle used to communicate school messages to families.

3. Encourage your students to talk. Sometimes students do not want to talk to their parents, and that is OK. However, we want parents to urge their students to share their concerns with somebody. Whether it be a favorite teacher, the parent of a close friend, a school counselor, or law enforcement, students need to discuss issues related to cyberbullying with a trusted adult in order to receive the support necessary to make it stop.

School Strategies

Principals must lead efforts to develop schoolwide strategies to prevent and deal with cyberbullying. Sometimes principals delegate the responsibility for implementation to task forces or committees, but, of course, the ultimate responsibility is theirs. Here are the important factors in any schoolwide strategy:

1. Teach appropriate online behaviors. All students benefit from direct instruction of academic content, and the same is true for social behavior. Providing students with the prerequisite skills for respectful online interactions may help prevent the occurrence or escalation of cyberbullying. The key things to teach your students are:

  • Be kind online, because these are real people you are interacting with. 
  • Your online behavior reflects on you, your school, and your community. This reputation will follow you, so try to be the best and kindest version of yourself.
  • Think before you type, because anything and everything you post online can be linked to your life offline. You are not anonymous or undetectable; your words will follow you. 

2. Teach strategies for responding to cyberbullying. It is important that students understand they are not powerless in situations of cyberbullying. As principal, you serve an integral role in teaching your students leadership and self-advocacy skills, and these skills extend to their online participation. When students receive online communication that is not appropriate, they can:

  • Tell the perpetrator that what they said or did was not acceptable and that they want them to stop.
  • Print out or take a screen shot of the inappropriate communication for documentation purposes. 
  • Block, unfriend, and delete any and all communication with the perpetrator. This should occur after documentation has been saved.
  • Report the incident to parents, school administrators, and/or local authorities to ensure that their safety and the safety of others are prioritized.

3. Encourage students to talk. One of the biggest fears about the impact of cyberbullying is that bullied students may withdraw, avoid school, and fall into depressive patterns. We want to encourage students to share their stories with friends, families, and their school community. Sharing may encourage others to come forward with their stories; it might initiate a community effort for change; and it could potentially have a positive impact on many others. To avoid any potential harm to students, consider these do’s and don’ts when encouraging students to speak out. 

DON’T take a student’s report, strip out identifiable facts, and make a schoolwide announcement about the cyberbullying, because everyone will know who is being talked about. 

DO hold periodic events to discuss cyberbullying in general; avoid linking discussions to any recent in-house cases. Use cases from other schools that do not include students in or coming into your school, and help students analyze the case and apply it to their own situations. 

DON’T publicly share students’ private pain without their consent, force them into proximity with their cyberbully, or put them in danger of retaliation for reporting the incident by making their situation publicly known.

DO acknowledge that it takes courage for students to come forward and report cyberbullying. Encourage students to do so, because the school cannot take action if it doesn’t know about the incidents. Forewarn students that retaliation for reporting cyberbullying is not tolerated by the school. 

DO acknowledge the need for trust and privacy. Encourage students to tell an adult at school they trust, and let them know that whomever they tell will bring the matter to the attention of the principal.DO assure students that complaints will be taken seriously and every effort will be made to protect privacy with the understanding that the principal’s job of investigating means talking to those involved in the cyberbullying.

If Reports Land on Your Desk 

As the leaders of the school building, principals are often sought out by families who are worried about the treatment of their students by others. These feelings of worry are often accompanied by a frustrating sense of helplessness—families just don’t know what to do to make the disrespectful behaviors stop. Additionally, students may come to you with reports of online bullying that they have not shared with their family. In either of these instances, you should:

  • Inform families of reports involving their students (before contacting the family, make sure the student is aware of your intentions and gives permission).
  • Encourage families to talk to other families.
  • Encourage families to go to law enforcement.
  • Encourage families to not ignore the issue.
  • Keep the door open and let families know that preventative strategies will be continued at school.

These school and home strategies are meant to serve as preventative tools for reducing the likelihood of disrespectful and dangerous behaviors online. Above all else, providing the space for honest and continued dialogue around online behaviors is the best way to support students.

Heidi von Ravensberg, JD, MBA, and Rhonda Nese, PhD, are research associates with Educational and Community Supports at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR.

Sidebar: Legislation in the Works

Is cyberbullying a criminal offense? Or can badmouthing someone online fall under a student’s right to free speech? Even the courts can’t decide.

For example, in the case People v. Marquan M., criminal charges brought against a minor for using social media to cyberbully his high school classmates were dropped after being found to violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment. However, efforts are underway to change the law and make it better for schools. 

In 2015, the Missouri legislature introduced House Bill 495, which would allow school districts to discipline students for cyberbullying that occurs off campus. The bill gives schools two thresholds for getting involved: 

  1. if it was reasonably foreseeable that the electronic communication would reach the school’s campus; or
  2. if there is a sufficient nexus between the electronic communication and the school, which includes but is not limited to speech that is directed at a school-specific audience, or the speech was brought onto or accessed on the school campus, even if it was not the student in question who did so.