Combat Cyberbullying with Communication

Communicator September 2013, Volume 37, Issue 1

September 2013, Volume 37, Issue 1

This article is republished from the special 2013 Back to School edition of PRincipal Communicator. View the entire issue here.

Every student at Seven Oaks Elementary in Lacey, Washington, can recite the school’s motto: FRED–Fairness, Respect, Empathy, and Dignity. But students don’t always act with FRED, especially when they’re online, says principal Ron Sisson.

“Cyberbullying is happening younger and younger,” says Sisson, who’s navigated several cyberbullying cases in his school. “We’re handing technology to students at younger and younger ages, but we’re not arming them with things to think about before you post or hit send.”

Most schools have bullying policies in place, but cyberbullying—using the Internet, cell phones, video game systems, or other technology to post hurtful text or images—poses unique challenges for school leaders.

“It gets harder to decipher conflict and bullying when you’re talking about social media,” says Jill Ramsay, counselor at Midway Elementary School in Des Moines, Washington. “What may start out as conflict—how does that turn into cyberbullying? How do you teach kids the difference?”

Further, cyberbullying doesn’t typically happen at school. It can be done anonymously and quickly, and is touchy to discuss with parents. For principals, one key to combating cyberbullying is smart, honest communication with students, parents, and community members.

What You Can Do to Combat Cyberbullying This Week

  • Update your school social media policies to clearly address cyberbullying—against both students and staff.
  • Review your student handbook to make sure the process for reporting cyberbullying is clear. Include instructions for documenting online incidents, such as taking a screen shot or printing a message thread.

This Month

  • Anonymously survey your students. “We ask some education questions—like, how do you define bullying? But we also get down to asking: Who are the two or three kids most likely to bully?” says Sisson. “We can tell teachers to keep an eye on these students. Then, you can bring that information to your discussions with parents.”
  • Outline expectations for conflict management in a series of schoolwide assemblies or discussions with classes.
  • Enlist students to create an anti-bullying slogan, online buttons, or banners

This Quarter

  • Organize parent classes on digital citizenship. “It takes the parents being on board to try to stop [cyberbullying],” says Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence. Classes should cover monitoring kids’ social media use and teaching kids appropriate strategies, she says.

Sisson tries to frame interactions with parents in a positive, rather than accusatory, way. “My experience has been that the parents aren’t even aware that these interactions had occurred,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for them to step in and work with their child.”

This Year

  • Partner with teachers to weave digital citizenship lessons into your school’s curriculum.
  • Model positive interactions with students online and encourage staff to do the same.
  • Share your successes. It’s easy for the media and the public to focus only on tragic bullying incidents, which Sisson says is tough to counter.

“That’s the hardest issue we deal with in the school system. The ‘Bully’ movie, these media stories—many of them are isolated incidents. For the most part, when schools have bullying incidents, we deal with them,” he says.

Share your anti-bullying program online in a blog post, or tweet about it. Publicize your parent classes, or collaborate with local law enforcement to hold a town hall-style meeting, and invite your community to take part.

Meredith Barnett is associte writer/editor at NAESP.

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