Who's Job Is It?
Parry received a letter after being quoted in an article in Parade magazine. She Cc.ed me and I had to add my own response. Here's the letter and my response.
As a school district technology coordinator, I was disappointed in the misguided advice you present related to the Facebook bullying scenario. While we go to great lengths to educate our students on cyber-bullying, what happens on Facebook does not fall under the coverage of school policies. Obviously, if a page is brought to a teacher or administrator's attention, it will be dealt with appropriately, meaning the parents will be contacted. But expecting schools to police what all of their students do outside of the buildings on their own devices is not reasonable or legal. Would you ask a teacher to intervene in a fight between two neighborhood children that happens at 7:00 at night? Of course not. Unless the bullying happens at school, on school computers or causes a disruption in the educational process, the parents, or police, should be handling this. Your advice is unfortunate because it is another example of basic parental responsibilities being shifted to the school's (already full) list of duties.
John Doe (Name changed by me)
I’ve been an educator for 35 years. I first came across cyberbullying in 1981. No, I’m not crazy. I know the Internet wasn’t even around then, but dial up computer bulletin board systems were, and our school had the state’s first school sponsored BBS. I’ve learned quite a bit since then. One of the things I learned is that kids who are being bullied online are usually also being bullied in school. I’ve also learned that teachers and administrators can’t police students anywhere near as effectively as students can.
I don’t think Parry expects schools to police Facebook, but the fact of the matter is that if an incident on Facebook is brought to the attention of the school, it is probably for good reason. I would be willing to bet my pay check that the bullying that is taking place there, is just an off shoot of bullying that takes place in school.
You ask if we would expect a teacher to intervene between two neighborhood kids who have a fight outside of school at 7:00 at night. Well, the obvious answer is, of course not, but there is also a not so obvious answer. I would expect the teacher to intervene if they had knowledge during the school day that the fight would take place. How about, if the fight at 7:00 were to continue or escalate during school time the next day?
There is an alarming practice that is starting to show up more and more in schools. It is gang related instigation of fights. Gangs will use cyberbullying tactics to instigate fights between students. These incident are usually initiated online and designed to create a fight that takes place in school where there is an audience.
The simple fact is that there is almost ALWAYS an in-school component to cyberbullying. While no one expects schools to police Facebook (heck, Facebook has a hard enough time doing that), it isn’t unreasonable to expect schools to look into incidents that are reported to them, because they probably do have an in school component. Whether or not they meet the legal test for action, is something that has to be considered carefully before any punitive action is taken. However, even if substantial disruption is likely, punitive action isn’t necessarily the best course of action. Each case has to be judged on its own merits.
The landscape is changing rapidly and the distinction between in-school and out-of-school is being blurred. Policing and punishing is never an acceptable substitute for education and empowering students to do the right thing.
The school district in which I taught was called Southern Regional. In 1998, three students created a website called SouthernRegionalSucks.com . It was done outside of school, with their own computers. It quickly because popular. There was actually some decent parody, but some of the forums were ugly and hateful. It was obvious that we could make a case for substantial disruption and take action, but that wasn’t my recommendation. I simply asked that they administration allow me to see what I could do.
What I did was engage the students in dialog right on their own site. I offered to find them a teacher sponsor to help them develop quality parody. I gave constructive criticism on the sites layout and design. I pointed out typos and spelling errors. I was teaching Internet Basics and my approach was to develop civic responsibility and empower students to make a difference in their world. As part of the class, we visited the site and discussed it. Some of my students added to the parodies and others stuck up for those who were being bullied. By not reacting the way the students expected and by making their attempt at disruption, a part of the mainstream, interest in the site died within two weeks and the site disappeared entirely not much later.
We developed a school community that was based on dialog, education, and youth empowerment. The positives that came out of that were nothing short of amazing. Of course there were cases where punishment was necessary. One student was arrested for credit card fraud and we even had a cyberbullying incident that involved a visit from the Secret Service, but we found those incidents few and far between. For the most part, we empowered students to make a difference and taught them the power of positive online social action.
Oh, incidentally, the visit from the Secret Service was prompted by action a student took online from his own computer at night and didn’t even involve another student in our school. He was attempting to use cyberbullying by proxy to bully a student in another school.
If we wait until there is substantial disruption to act, we are forever in reactionary mode. We need to be proactive. We have to educate, model good online citizenship, promote positive online social activities, and empower students to take responsibility for making their online and off-line world a better place.