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Cyberbullying in Schools

October 05, 2018 Charli Searcy

Definition, laws, and best practices for addressing cyberbullying

Cyberbullying has become a common problem in Texas public schools. With students using a growing number of social media channels, there are more opportunities for cyberbullying to occur, making it a difficult matter to address. In order to successfully identify, prevent, and mitigate incidents at your district, it is important for school and district administrators to be aware of the laws addressing cyberbullying and know the appropriate ways to address this behavior.

What is cyberbullying?

In order to properly understand its meaning, bullying must first be defined. Bullying can be a single significant act or a pattern of acts by one or more students directed at another student that exploits a balance of power. It involves communication or physical conduct that:

  • Physically harms the student;
  • Damages the student’s property;
  • Places the student in reasonable fear of harm;
  • Infringes on the student’s rights at school;
  • Disrupts the educational process or the orderly operation of a class or school; or
  • Is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment [Tex. Educ. Code, section 37.0832(a)(1)]

Cyberbullying is defined as “bullying that is done through the use of electronic communication, including a cellular or other type of telephone, a computer, a camera, electronic mail, instant messaging, text messaging, a social media application, an Internet website, or any other Internet-based communication tool.” [Tex. Educ. Code, section 37.0832 (a)(2)]

Bullying, including cyberbullying, can occur on or be delivered to school property or a school-related activity; or it can occur on a vehicle being used to transport students to or from school or a school-related activity. Behavior that occurs off campus and outside of a school-related activity can qualify as cyberbullying if it is related to the school, interferes with the educational opportunities of the student, or disrupts the educational process. [Tex. Educ. Code, section 37.0832(a-1)]

Examples of cyberbullying  

  • A young woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The boyfriend decides to take revenge by posting personal photos and text messages that he and the young woman exchanged during their relationship on his social media page. As a result, their classmates make negative, disparaging comments about the young woman online and in person.
  • A shy male student is taunted through texts and emails by his classmates, who he was once friends with because they do not think he acts like a “normal boy” and does not participate in “normal guy things.” He now wants to transfer schools.
  • A group of girls gets together after school and posts rumors about a new girl at school on a popular student’s personal blog, indicating that “she has already dated half of the football team.” The new girl finds out about this website and is devastated.

Laws that address cyberbullying

There are laws in place that prohibit cyberbullying behavior, including the recently passed Senate Bill 179 (SB 179), also known as David’s Law. SB 179 is an anti-bullying law that prohibits cyberbullying behavior, gives victims remedies for such actions and enforces a stricter punishment on the aggressor. It also requires school districts to include cyberbullying in their policies regarding bullying and to notify parents if their child has been the victim of bullying or is the aggressor.

This law also provides districts with additional tools for addressing cyberbullying, such as the ability to:

  • Investigate bullying off campus if it affects the school environment
  • Collaborate with law enforcement on criminal matters
  • Place students in a disciplinary alternative education program or expel students for certain bullying behavior
  • Invest in counseling and rehabilitation services for the victim and the aggressor

Take immediate and necessary action

It is not enough to know that these laws prohibiting cyberbullying exist. Districts need to be proactive in promptly handling this issue when it arises. The Texas School Safety Center bullying toolkit can help with these efforts. Your district should encourage teachers and staff members to always take the matter seriously and promptly report any potential cyberbullying incidents to the appropriate school officials. The victim should also be assured that the district will take the issue seriously. Taking the necessary steps can help reduce incidents and ultimately prevent risks associated with cyberbullying.

Districts are required to:

  • Provide anonymous reporting for students regarding bullying and cyberbullying in order to reduce fears of being identified.
  • Establish procedures for notifying parents or guardians of both the victim and the aggressor. The parents or guardians of the victim must be notified on or before the third business day after the date the incident is reported. The parents or guardians of the aggressor must be contacted within a reasonable amount of time after the incident.
  • Follow additional procedures if the cyberbullying is related to the victim’s membership in a protected class. For example, if the cyberbullying is based on sex or gender, then the district’s Title IX coordinator should be notified.

The steps for making a complaint should be thoroughly explained to the student. The complaint process should include following up with everyone involved and consistently documenting any progress.

Equally important, there should be an investigation and possible separation of the victim and aggressor. Ensure your district understands the provisions in policy FDB (LOCAL) regarding intradistrict transfers and classroom assignments for students who engage in, or are the victim of bullying (including cyberbullying). Depending on the circumstances, districts may be able to provide transfers to another classroom, or even another campus, as a potential remedy to cyberbullying. However, keep in mind that the victim should not be removed from a classroom or school if doing so goes against his or her preference. Always give the victim a choice to prevent them from feeling isolated or like they did something wrong.

The following are some best practices your district can implement to effectively respond to cyberbullying to help reduce or even prevent its risks:

Know and consistently implement your policies

Review and become well-versed in your policy FFI (LOCAL) Freedom from Bullying. District policies are required to prohibit bullying and harassment.

Districts are also required to adopt a policy regarding bullying that:

  • Prohibits the bullying of a student;
  • Prohibits retaliation;
  • Establishes a procedure for providing notice of an incident of bullying to a parent or guardian of the victim and aggressor within the required statutory time frame;
  • Establishes the actions a student should take to obtain assistance and intervention in response to bullying;
  • Sets out the available counseling options for a student who is a victim of or a witness to bullying or who engages in bullying;
  • Establishes procedures for reporting an incident of bullying, including procedures for a student to anonymously report an incident of bullying, investigating a reported incident of bullying, and determining whether the reported incident of bullying occurred;
  • Prohibits the imposition of a disciplinary measure on a student who, after an investigation, is found to be a victim of bullying, on the basis of that student’s use of reasonable self-defense in response to the bullying; and
  • Requires that discipline for bullying of a student with disabilities comply with applicable requirements under federal law. [Tex. Educ. Code, section 37. 0832(c)]

In addition to being familiar with your policies, you must consistently implement your policies and immediately address any ineffective procedure that does not provide proper protection for your school community. Consider conducting a round table discussion or general meeting with principals, teachers, and staff to ensure everyone is on the same page concerning the appropriate policies to apply regarding cyberbullying. This will create an atmosphere of inclusion and give staff an opportunity to raise any questions or concerns they may have with effectively addressing this issue.

Educate students about cyberbullying

Your district should regularly educate students on what constitutes cyberbullying and the consequences. Discussing the consequences serves as a deterrent, but also shows how the school takes such misconduct seriously.

Cyberbullying education could include:

  • Classes or assemblies that give students realistic and relevant examples of what cyberbullying consists of and how the school punishes such behavior
  • Handouts or pamphlets with information about cyberbullying, how to report it, and contact information for a designated school official who is responsible for dealing specifically with issues concerning bullying and cyberbullying
  • Interactive activities to keep students engaged while learning how to recognize cyberbullying
  • Training on how to report cyberbullying, especially if the district provides an online or app-based reporting system

Educate staff to recognize cyberbullying

Teach your district employees how to recognize the signs of cyberbullying which may include, but are not limited to, a student’s:

  • Decline in grades
  • Depression or sadness
  • Withdrawal from his/her social circle
  • Refusal to participate in activities
  • Increased absenteeism or attempts to miss class or school
  • Change in demeanor after using a cell phone or computer

Employees may not understand their role in recognizing and reporting cyberbullying behavior that occurs outside of school or school-related activities. It is critical that employees report any potential incidents of cyberbullying, regardless of where the behavior takes place. If the behavior interferes with the victim’s education opportunities or substantially disrupts orderly school operations, it should be considered cyberbullying.

Keep parents and guardians informed

Encourage your district administrators to maintain an open line of communication with parents and guardians by keeping them regularly informed regarding school policies. Encourage parents and guardians to stay aware of their child’s phone use and online interactions, especially through social media platforms to further prevent bullying incidents. Also, ensure they have the necessary contact information to report cyberbullying behavior.

Involve law enforcement

If after an investigation is completed, there are reasonable grounds to believe that a student engaged in criminal conduct, SB 179 allows principals of a public elementary, middle, or high school, or a person designated by the principal, to make a report to:

  • Any school district police department, if applicable;
  • The police department of the municipality in which the school is located; oThe sheriff of the county in which the school is located if the school is not in a municipality. [Tex. Educ. Code, section 37.0151(a)]

If it is believed that cyberbullying has created a criminal offense, ensure your district reviews the GRAA (EXHIBIT) policy, which covers the types of offenses that require reporting to law enforcement.

Following these steps will help your district properly address cyberbullying and minimize the risks associated with it. For more information concerning liability risks, please contact Legal Liability Risk Consultant Charli Searcy. For legal advice or questions about local policies, please contact TASB Legal Services at 800.580.5345 or TASB Policy Service at 800.580.7529. 

The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Please consult with your attorney for legal advice regarding these principles.

Tagged: bullying, "legal topics", School