Schools and Cyberbullying

In late June Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter’s principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn’t want to involve the police, and they knew the boy’s parents socially. The principal’s response was cut and dried: “This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can’t discipline him.”

CyberbullingAt first I thought that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response—until I read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That’s horrifying, but it’s the reality.

My takeaway, however, is not that schools are right to split hairs and decline to get involved. Instead, I think we need some redefinition, some fresh thinking.

Consider for a moment how non-public schools function. Most have a code of conduct, one that students who have chosen to attend must accept. So if a student from Andover or Pencey Prep does something on a weekend that is an egregious violation of the behavior code and is caught, that student would suffer the consequences. No way the school head could drop that “not my responsibility” line and get away with it.

The key point here is that these schools embrace values. And having values is generally a 24/7 proposition. As the old chestnut goes, you cannot work in a whorehouse on weekends without consequences for M-F.

Parents-and perhaps the kid—chose their non public school with their eyes open. Often they are choosing a school because of its values. And, of course, some public schools—think KIPP and other charter schools—have a code of conduct that all are expected to adhere to.

Because values matter, why not build schools around the concept of choice and variety? That would mean embracing the true mission of education, going beyond 8AM-3PM, test scores, athletics and college admissions.

What if a district embraced differences and variety and choice, but at the same time insisted that each school develop its own code of conduct, of acceptable behaviors?

Publish the choices and the code of ethics/behavior, and let families make informed choices.

Me, I would put ‘safety,’ particularly emotional and intellectual safety, at the top of the list of priorities.

I devote a long chapter of Below C Level, my new book, to the issue of school safety. The horror stories are there, of course, because it’s important that readers understand just how pervasive bullying and cyberbullying are. We don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines on this one, not parents and not school people either.

12 thoughts on “Schools and Cyberbullying

  1. Thanks for raising an important issue. The NY Times article indeed points out the mine field that awaits educators in this area. Rather than avoid the minefield, however, let’s instead act as mine-sweepers.

    A good start is to become more informed about the subject, and I can personally recommend Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying by Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, which I reviewed here:


  2. Certainly values should be expected of participants in any activity – including any education. But what is really sad is that all too many students never had value expectations at home and / or would never lead to support of administration over children. Equally sad in your example is that the parents couldn’t talk with the other parents because of social friendships. Shouldn’t such adults find it easier to talk than strangers?

    I’m very sadly going to suggest that there are far too many adults and special interest groups that would come down on the absolutely appropriate expectation of respecting values in public schools especially.

    Bottom line: it should happen for all the right reasons but won’t happen for all the wrong reasons!


  3. John, it’s time for you to do an updated segment on this issue. I am sure some school library media specialists OR technology specialists will have some stories on how they are handling with this situation.


  4. Hi, I was quoted in Jan’s excellent story. Actually, the legal standards are more clear than they appear to be. What has caused the confusion is that all but one case involved speech directed at staff – which should be viewed differently. Unfortunately, the one case, in California was not a clear decision.

    Essentially the standard, that can easily be supported by a logical legal analysis is as follows:

    Tinker: school officials can respond to speech that has caused or threatens a substantial disruption at school or interference with the rights of students to be secure.

    Saxe (Judge Alito’s decision, when he was at the circuit level): significant interference with the educational performance of a student is almost by definition a substantial disruption.

    All of the off-campus student speech cases: Regardless of geographic origin of the speech, school officials can respond if that speech has caused or threatens a substantial disruption.

    Morse: Although a weird case, the decision supporting the school official’s response to a banner advocating drug use was grounded in school/student safety concerns.

    Thus, combining this: School officials have the authority to respond to student off-campus online speech if that speech has or reasonably could cause a substantial disruption at school or interference with students rights to be secure – which would generally include 3 kids of situations: violent altercations, significant interference in a student’ ability to participate in instruction or school activities, or substantial interference with school operations thus disrupting student instruction.

    These cyberbullying incidents combine online and off-line altercations – and sometimes they turn violent or they result in school failure. Thus, reasonable adults could come to no other conclusion that school officials must be able to respond.

    However, it is also imperative that the response be effective. Simply suspending the student perceived to be the “bully” is not likely to be effective. Many times these situations involve ongoing harmful interactions. More comprehensive approaches for prevention as well as response are necessary.


  5. John: I couldn’t agree more with your point. Virtually all independent schools do have such policies whereby their Student Handbooks specify behaviors that are not acceptable on or off campus and the consequences for not adhering to the standards of the school. And parents and students are often required to sign a document indicating that they have read and agree to the expectations as specified in the Student Handbook. Any school, public or private, can make character a core element of its standards and program. Any school that doesn’t, public or private, fails to educate the whole child. The 3 Rs of the academic curriculum (‘reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) must be accompanied by the 3 Rs of the character curriculum, (respect, responsibility, relationships).

    Patrick F. Bassett, President
    National Association of Independent School


  6. I hate slippery slope arguments, but we are entering into a dangerous time for school administrators.

    Schools are increasingly being called on to take responsibility for bullying and, at the same time, “bullying” is getting defined in broader and broader terms. A parent complained to me recently about her child being bullied. The bullying was that she was not being invited to birthday parties. Bullying-via-technology further complicates things, of course.

    On top of this we have a new cultural template that has two major components. One is the perception that bullying is escalating out of control. I’ve yet to see evidence that is true. EVERY seasoned K-12 educator I talk to says that there is LESS bullying now than 20 or 30 years ago. The second component is the perception that there is an epidemic of kids killing themselves as a result of being bullied. There is no evidence whatever that this is the case. There are tragic, individual cases. Sadly, three or four well-publicized anecdotes + 24-hour news coverage = the perception of an “epidemic.”

    Start paying attention to this: If a young person commits suicide in your community in the next year, there will be immediate speculation that it was the result of bullying which was “ignored” by schools. No one will consider more likely possibilities, such as a teenager who has been clinically depressed and untreated.


  7. I commented earlier. I just wanted to note that I have some new documents posted on my site. Two short documents on Cyberbullying Guidance and Sexting Guidance. And a longer document entitled School Response to Cyberbullying and Sexting: The Legal Challenges. These are all on this page:

    And, yes, Bernice, I address Title IX. Also Dale, I believe you are correct in your perception of the fact that bullying is actually decreasing – and that well-publicized stories can point the finger of blame at schools for happenings that are more complex. There is an excellent story on what really happened in Massachusetts here:


  8. Thank you for these thoughtful and useful reactions.

    One learns values anywhere he spends significant time. Picture an early elementary classroom. it will have all sorts of value messages on the walls, from “work hard” to “be nice to everyone” to “smile”. All sorts of Golden Rule messages. My point is that’s not enough. Schools could foster a “we don’t do that here” attitude as well. The roots of Columbine grew in soil that tolerated and encouraged a “jocks rule” mentality, and teachers looked the other way or said “boys will be boys” when jocks stuffed kids (including one of the killers, as I recall) into lockers, et cetera.

    I hope you all will read my chapter on the subject, because today’s technology presents real dangers, and adults cannot stand by idly, in my view.


  9. I disagree with you. The job of schools is to educate–in the classic sense. Bullying has probably been around since we dropped out of the trees. If it’s egregious call the cops, if it’s not call the parents. Let’s let the schools do what they should do and quit trying to make them the gatekeeper for all social shortfalls.


  10. Public Schools already do a terrible job at educating and an even worse job at dispensing justice. The abuse of zero tolerance policies have clearly shown that administrators cannot be trusted with unchecked authority. To give them expanded power that extends beyond the school’s walls is dangerous and the kind of thinking that leads to fascism. Your opinion frightens me and your use of fear might inspire others to surrender what freedoms children might still possess. Who would be the one to decide what constitutes cyber-bullying? Invariably to the school who would be acting as judge, jury, and executioner and they would use vague criteria to expel whomever they wanted just as they do with zero tolerance.


  11. “Bullying is Child Abuse by Children” is the message all adults, including educators, should convey. We have to change the label from “bullying” to CHILD ABUSE because that’s really what it is. The behaviors that constitute bullying [pushing, shoving, hitting, stealing possessions, etc = physical bullying; taunts, teasing, ridiculing, spreading lies or rumors, etc.= emotional bullying or cyberbullying], if done by an adult would be labeled physical or emotional ABUSE [spousal, elder, or child], would constitute a crime: assault & battery or robbery, or psychological abuse, slander, libel, etc. and would be prosecuted. If we don’t allow abuse by adults, why do we allow children to do it—thereby LEARNING that behavior? Children learn what they live. Then they live what they learn. By not punishing bullying abuse, by not conveying that this is unacceptable behavior, children are learning that it is acceptable. As adults, they continue to bully others – at home and in the workplace – and the problem multiplies exponentially.


  12. I’ve been following this issue for a long time and covered it in our book about sexual harassment(”Student-to-Student Sexual Harassment, K-12: Strategies and Solutions for Educators to Use in the Classroom, School and Community,” by Sandler and Stonehill).

    One of the best incentives to get schools involved in developing specific programs for everyone in the school system, students, families, administrators, teachers, staff, including the janitors,
    is for school to understand the legal and financial ramifications of all forms of bullying. Schools have been sued under Title IX for peer sexual harassment and have had to pay six-figure settlements in several cases. You can bet that those schools now have quite good programs concerning sexual harassment. There are fewer incentives that are stronger than one’s self-interest. That and the threat of federal involvement and individual lawsuits are powerful
    motivators to intervene when student-to-student sexual harassment occurs and to develop strong
    prevention programs.

    Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called “sluts” and “hos,” boys are called “fags’ and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent. Often sexual bullying is not seen as a form of sexual harasssment.

    What most writers about cyberbullying are missing is that Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 (sometimes known as “that sports law,”) clearly prohibits sexual harassment. This federal law also prohibits these behaviors outside the school, as when personal computers are used, and when the behavior is disruptive to learning, such as affecting a student’s ability to partake of the
    opportunities for learning in school as well as partaking in other school opportunities provided by the school. Schools have an obligation to stop sexual bullying when it occurs and to have a policy that prohibits it.

    Virtually all of the articles about bullying and/or about cyberbullying, appearing in the popular press, including the NY Times, have not mentioned Title IX at all.

    Unfortunately, most of the writers about cyberbullying only mention antibullying laws which are at the state level and are notoriously ineffective. Title IX in contrast, covers virtually all of the
    sexual cyberbullyling that exists among students when it is upsetting to the students who receive or learn about these posts and affect their ability to learn or partake in the educational opportunities, programs, etc. Families can sue directly in court or can file a charge with the Education Department without needing an attorney.

    When the child in the Massachusetts high school killed herself after much sexual bullying, the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department, which enforces Title IX, contacted the school system within 24 hours after the incident was reported in the news.

    You could really help schools by informing them of their obligations under Title IX to stop sexual cyberbullying, and the possible loss of federal funding if they do not.

    I strongly believe that most educators want to stop cyberbullying, and they need to read the kinds of article you wrote. Many of them do not know what to do, and even if they do, it is hard to convince school administrators of the need to do so quickly. Title IX is federal law. It has made a huge difference in sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination at many schools at all levels. It can make a difference in cyberbullying too, if educators knew about it.

    Most of the changes re sex discrimination in education have not occurred because of lawsuits, although a few have helped, certainly to publicize the issue. In most cases, discriminatory policies and harmful responses to complaints, etc. have stopped and new programs developed when someone, often a parent, sometimes an attorney) pointed out to a school that what they were doing or not doing was a violation of Title IX.

    You are a powerful person in the world of K-12. You certainly could make a difference in this issue by pointing out that Title IX is involved in this issue. I hope you will do so.


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