Cyberbullying Poses Challenges for School Communicators

An Overview from NSPRA’s Environmental Scanning Committee

An overwhelming majority of our students today communicate over social networks. Unfortunately, their experiences there can have real-world consequences that can be damaging and even dangerous.

According to Socialnomics author Erik Qualman, 96 percent of "Generation Ys" belong to social networks where many young people find themselves the victim of harassment or bullying. Qualman also points out that it is difficult to remove disparaging or embarrassing information once it is posted online, compounding a growing problem.

‘Hot’ Issue

Cyberbullying has become a "hot" issue in many states this year, as evidenced by the number of high profile media reports since the start of the school year. From Rhode Island to North Dakota to Washington, reports of cyberbullying, at colleges as well as at the K-12 level, are easily found on the Internet.

For example, in Central Pennsylvania, a high school freshman committed suicide in October, allegedly because he was the victim of cyberbullying. A recent New York Times article told the story of a middle school student with the initials "D.C." Three of "D.C.’s" classmates, whom he later told police had "never liked" him, set up a Facebook page in his name and, throughout the fall, terrorized his peers. Because other students mistakenly thought the comments were coming from "D.C.", he was ostracized at school, ate lunch alone and even began to skip class.

Make an Impact – Communicate

The lesson for school public relations professionals – we are in a position to make an impact through effective communication with staff, students, parents and other community members. Given the "play" this issue is receiving, we should be proactive in telling and retelling our constituents about our bullying prevention efforts and safe schools programs. But, we also must be prepared to respond effectively when there is a problem.

Develop Sound Policy Social Media Policies

If your district has social media sites, you should have a policy outlining appropriate use. In addition to the more traditional bullying and harassment policies, many school districts are incorporating rules about cyberbullying into their Student Codes of Conduct. Jackson County School District 549C in Medford, Ore., has adopted a policy that clearly defines what the district believes is cyberbullying and establishes strict penalties.

Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C., has added a "Web 2.0 Tools" page to their website that covers guidelines for use and detailed information on a variety of online tools for both teachers and students. They also post their Technology Policies and Forms as an easy reference. Community High School District 128 in Lake County, Ill., has posted their Expectations for Communicating Electronically with Students, which provides clear guidelines for protecting students, staff and the district.

Another issue to track concerns liability exposure for school districts related to recent federal guidance on bullying and harassment. Francisco Negron, Jr., NSBA’s top legal counsel, has expressed concerns in a warning to the U.S. Department of Education that the expanded standard of liability for school officials could "invite misguided litigation." Conversations between NSBA and the Department of Education are continuing, but the issue bears watching.

Educate Audiences about Cyberbullying

School communicators can be valuable advisors to district leaders in creating plans to communicate the need for the appropriate use of social networks, e-mail and texting with students. One component of such a plan should be a process for students to report bullying incidents.

Elaina Polsen, director of public information for Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas, said that in her district, the topic has become linked to classroom instruction. A "digital citizenship" curriculum ties into existing character development lessons.

In addition, parents need to know about the dangers of social networking and cyberbullying and the importance of monitoring what their children do online. One excellent resource, offered free of charge by the Federal Trade Commission, is the Net Cetera Community Outreach Toolkit. It includes: Net Cetera, a 53-page online guidebook for parents; Heads Up – Stop, Think, Click, an information booklet for kids that covers issues such as safe navigating and cyberbullying; a CD and DVD with presentation slides and videos for parents and kids; and ideas for spreading the work about online safety. To order free copies, go to http://bulkorder.ftc.gov/.

Parents also should be informed about steps they can take if they think their children are being bullied. Pennsylvania’s Center for Safe Schools, managed by the state Department of Education, produced a DVD titled "Protecting Kids Online" for schools to distribute to parents. The video can be viewed on the Protecting Kids Online website, which also offers a Video User’s Guide. Winner of a national public service award, the video warns parents about the dangers of various forms of cyberbullying and provides tips for discussing this issue with their children.

Monitor Online Activity and ‘Infiltrate’

Dartmouth Professor Paul Argenti notes that many leaders are reluctant to join social networking sites, but he believes this is where the future of communication is going. By monitoring and "infiltrating" social network sites, school PR professionals can keep in touch with issues in their districts. Keeping up with the latest "buzz" also helps us become better prepared to respond to fast-spreading rumors. As school communicators, we should be adept at using websites, e-mail lists, social networking sites, and phone/text notification systems so it is second nature when we have critically important information to communicate.

Additional Resources

  • "Take a Stand, Lend a Hand, Stop Bullying Now," U.S. Department of Education publication for parents and students; from USDE website.

The 2010-11 Environmental Scanning Committee is chaired by Louise Henry, APR. If you are interested in becoming involved in the committee, she can be reached at lhenry@hcde-texas.org.