Cyber-bullying in Schools: Clashing Expectations over the School’s Role

Recent articles about cyber-bullying reminded me of the extraordinarily high expectations that parents have for public schools when other children are cruel or threatening online to their sons or daughters. Consider what happened in a New Jersey affluent suburb.

Parents of a middle school girl showed the principal sexually explicit threats texted to their daughter over the weekend from a twelve year-old sixth grade boy. They wanted the principal to discipline the student. Principal told them that incident happened outside of school on a weekend and he could not do anything to the boy.

Had parents contacted the boy’s family, principal asked. No. Why? The fathers knew each other well through coaching. Had they contacted the police? No. Why? Because filing a police report would lead to unwanted publicity and an uncertain outcome. They pleaded with the principal for immediate help.

After much begging by the parents, the principal of this 700-student middle school agreed to talk to the boy. Over the next few days unraveling exactly who had sent the threats and why, the principal, his assistant principal, a counselor, social worker, and elementary school principal spent over 10 hours.

The upshot was that the 12 year-old boy initially thought to have sent the messages had lost his phone, someone else had found it and texted the girl. The principal told the parents they could not determine who that other boy was. The parents wanted the principal to continue investigating. He said he could do no more. The parents, of course, could sue the school for not protecting their daughter from the unknown cyber-bully.

Now travel to Beverly Hills where a parent did sue a middle school. Not, however, for failing to protect his eighth grade daughter but for intervening in an after school incident. The eighth grader (called J.C. in court documents) had videotaped friends at a coffeehouse after school as they made spiteful and cruel remarks (“ugly,” “brat” and “slut”) about another eighth grade girl. J.C. went home and put the video on YouTube where it went viral at the school. As a result, a school administrator suspended her for cyber-bullying. J.C.’s father sued: “What incensed me was that these people [suspended] my daughter for something that happened outside of school.”

The local judge ruled in the parent’s favor because the school cannot discipline a child for speech “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature … and may often fight over hurtful comments.” The district had to pay court costs of over $100,000.

Two middle schools, yet two opposite outcomes in dealing with cyber-bullying. One parent expected the school to mind its own business when his daughter and friends made an after-school video and the other parents begged for the schools to intervene. School administrators were criticized for suspending the videotaping eighth grader and criticized for not doing enough in the instance of the texting sixth grader.

Expectations for what schools should do when it comes to the moral questions of cyber-bullying and the free speech of immature adolescents remain in conflict. To what extent does school authority extend beyond its building and hours in session? The answer rests in cases moving through the courts as judges seek a balance among the rights of students to exercise free speech, the rights of students to feel safe in a school, and issues of parental privacy.

Yet there are conflicts between public expectations for what schools should do with children and youth that courts cannot resolve. High expectations for schools to solve the problem of teenager cruelty to one another when it occurs in or out of school comes into conflict with other societal expectations for schools to be modern, innovative, and with-it when it comes to new technologies.

Parents (also add employers, most educators, and voters for tax levies) expect schools to deploy the newest technologies so that students could learn more, faster, and better. They expect teachers to use these new technologies in ways that will enhance their teaching. They expect that students using these new technologies will be ready to enter the labor market fully equipped to manage the demands of jobs in a knowledge-based economy.

Here’s where the conflict between societal expectations pinches. Since children and youth typically watch screens daily (TV, cell phones, laptops, desktop computers, and other hand-held devices) that screen time has grown from over 6 hours a day in 2004 to nearly 8 hours a day in 2009 (or over 53 hours a week excluding screen time done in school). Moreover, since social media for teenagers involve heavy-duty interactions even to the point of utter dependency upon the devices (maybe addiction?)–see my post of June 17, 2010–should parents, voters, and educators encourage children to spend even more time on screens in schools? The next post will explore answers to this question.


Filed under technology use

6 responses to “Cyber-bullying in Schools: Clashing Expectations over the School’s Role

  1. Bob Calder

    Of 2o high schools having 1000 to 3000 students in my district, predominantly white schools reported incidents of threat or violence at low rates and bullying at high rates, yet at predominantly black schools, the reporting was reversed. Also, failure to report incidents to police was nearly three times as prevalent at the “white” schools.

    It seems to me that we have a problem with perception at a basic level in my district.

    Today I got an appeal from the AAUW for support of “Safe Schools Improvement Act … also to support inclusion of the bill language in the reauthorization process. ” This is a higher ed issue according to AAUW but I don’t see how it can not be applied to k-12.

  2. I agree that schools are placed in a precarious position with cyber-bullying that happens outside of the school day. They are in trouble if they do nothing and in trouble if they handle the situation at school.

    At the end of your post you began to insinuate that less screen time at school could be better for students. I am looking forward to your next post.

    My thoughts are that the screen time in school should be focused on building the digital citizenship skills that will deter the outside of school cyber-bullying. The class time that I spend with my students using technology we daily work through what is the appropriate way to interact and engage with others online. Those skills must be explicitly taught to combat reckless online behavior.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I learn a lot from your writings!

  3. Betty

    What about the “teacher” who becomes bullied? Or partial recordings are presented to an administrator? The teacher is called onto the carpet with an angry Principal who tells the teacher, if possible that teacher would be gone today. Scenario: The student is unhappy in class. The other 35 kids are being disruptive and impeding the learning process. The teacher has tried to collect the class in a positive manner. Used words of encouragement, praise and reward. Teacher has reminded the students the importance of an education and although the students have abused the “educational value” of cell phones the Teacher has included electronic devices into the classroom experience. The school district has a BYOD (Bring your own device with all student access and left the policies of use up to the individual teacher.) The disgruntled student begins to take “recordings” of the teacher and told the parents “Here let me show you how evil the teacher is….” What is a teacher to do? How do we defend ourselves from student bullying? Or from being set up by students?

    • larrycuban

      A sad story, Betty. Without knowing more about what has happened (and is happening) in the class, I cannot answer your questions. It does sound to me that the principal is the “bully,” not the student who seems to want an orderly class where he or she can learn. It is the principal who seemingly rushes to judgment and threatens the teacher with dismissal without finding out more about what is going on in the class.

  4. Betty

    Thank you. I appreciate your response.

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