Kids have been bullying each other for generations. But for Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration or the Net Generation, the ability to utilize technology to expand their reach—and the extent of their harm—has increased exponentially. Bullying in all forms, face-to-face or via technology, is of course unacceptable, but today’s school leaders need to arm themselves with new rules and strategies to address aggressive behaviors that hurt students’ well-being, their academic performance, and school climates overall.
One 2011 report suggests that many schools are not adequately preparing students to be safe in today’s digitally connected age. It cites basic online safety and ethics as two areas in which students need more education.
The report, “State of K-12 Cyberethics, Cybersafety, and Cybersecurity Curriculum in the United States,” was published by the National Cyber Security Alliance and sponsored by Microsoft. Among other findings, the report states that 81 percent of school administrators, including principals and superintendents, said they believe their districts are adequately preparing students in online safety, security, and ethics. However, only 51 percent of teachers agreed.
To date, not a single state has passed comprehensive legislation mandating that online safety, security, and ethics be part of the K-12 curriculum. The National Cyber Security Alliance is urging states to support legislation that does just that.
Creating comprehensive policies and procedures is critical for the protection of all. In some cases, when bullying is based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion, it overlaps with harassment, and schools are legally obligated to address it.
It’s important for schools and districts to work with school boards to develop comprehensive policies that address bullying (including cyberbullying) and harassment and to be sure to outline what bullying looks like and sounds like while specifying the consequences of such behavior.
I encourage district administrators to assess the extent and scope of the problems within their schools by conducting a survey of their students. Once there is a baseline of what is going on in a school, educators can implement specific strategies to teach students and staff members about the nature and impact of bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment. They can also share creative and powerful ways to change the behaviors, positively.
Cultivating a positive school climate starts and stops with adults."
Keep in mind that bullying, in general, is more likely to occur in areas that are less supervised by adults, such as on the school bus and in the cafeteria, locker rooms, restrooms, and hallways. Schools should create a plan of action to address these “hot spots” by adding additional adults to supervise them, using security cameras in less-controlled places, and asking students for suggestions on heading off problems. Getting students involved gives them a sense of ownership in protecting their classmates and the opportunity to be part of the solution.
School administrators should implement such programs with consistency and make all policies and procedures readily available to students, staff members, families, and the larger community. They should also utilize specially created curricula or general-information sessions, such as assemblies and homeroom, or in-class discussions to raise awareness within the student body. And educators should invite specialists to come talk to staff and students (and also be sure to invite parents, or at least send information to them).
Many schools are now offering anonymous-reporting tools, like a cyberbullying hotline that lets students instantly send text messages—or leave a voice-mail message—alerting school officials to an incident. In response, those officials can reply immediately, also anonymously, and provide students the support they need to address the act, whether they are witnessing it or on the receiving end of it. Such a comprehensive program also establishes a reporting mechanism in the school.
Administrators must take each report of bullying or cyberbullying seriously, regardless of whether it was made anonymously or in person.
It’s vital, too, that school leaders investigate all reports in a timely manner and gather as much information as possible to ensure accuracy—the who, what, where, when, and how questions must be asked and answered. And remember: Always speak with students individually, never in a group.
Cultivating a positive school climate starts and stops with adults. Research has shown a link between a perceived negative environment on campus and an increased prevalence of cyberbullying, bullying, and harassment behaviors. It’s crucial to establish and maintain a school climate of respect and integrity where violations result in informal or formal sanctions. So remember:
• Putting a stop to bullying takes a collaborative effort.
• Approach the process one step at a time.
• Change happens in small increments. The problem was not created in one day and cannot be solved in one either.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Addressing Bullying