How Administrators Can Better Understand Cyberbullying

Richard Lawrence
Richard Lawrence
Elementary school principal; M.A. in School Administration
Sad girl looking at her cell phone with two girls staring behind her.

Presently, I am a principal of a lower elementary school and have no dealings with cyberbullying. From the 2008-2009 school year to December of 2015, I served as a high school vice principal and then middle school vice principal and had to deal with a number of these cases. The difference between then and now is that technology has grown vastly more sophisticated and the apps of choice for adolescents have changed. So while I can’t speak in specific terms as to what upper level administrators are dealing with in the present, the core responsibility remains the same.

What is Cyberbullying?

According to Oxford Languages, cyberbullying is “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.” This can occur over any electronic device: phones, tablets, laptops and PCs. With students, it’s usually over the phone through posting/messages, simply because this is the type of device they use the most.

The bullying can be direct or indirect. A student or students may send direct threatening messages to other students or a more subtle and indirect effort may be undertaken. Rumor spreading, gossip, and the spreading of false information about a student or students is commonplace within this type of behavior. It can slowly and maliciously spread over time until it reaches a “fever pitch” and elicits some type of reaction among the targeted audience.

What are the Effects of Cyberbullying?

There can be multiple effects of cyberbullying.

  • Fear and Intimidation: Just as with a bully who uses physical means to create fear among his/her targets, a cyberbully accomplishes the same through electronic means.
  • Withdrawal: Cyberbullying may cause its targets to become withdrawn. Students may be isolated and depressed and retreat within, feeling they have little to no friends left and no place to turn.
  • Trauma: Cyberbullying can have lasting long-term effects on students and this emotional trauma can follow students into adulthood.
  • Self-Harm: It is possible that cyberbullying may create an immediate sense of despair and result in self-harm all the way up to suicide.
  • Conflict: It is also possible that cyberbullying may cause its targets to fight back. This could be through electronic retaliation or retaliation in person.

When is the School Responsible?

The school becomes responsible when the conduct creates a “substantial disruption” to the school day and environment. Once a cyberbullying incident among students outside of school spills over into school and is brought to the attention of any staff member, the school at that point becomes legally responsible. If the staff member is a paraprofessional, teacher, security officer, or any other position that is not part of administration, it is their duty to report the alleged cyberbullying conduct to administration.

So what is a “substantial disruption” within the school environment? Anything that is consuming two or more students, usually within the context of a conflict, and distracting attention away from the school’s primary mission is a substantial disruption. This can range from rumors going around the school, to a verbal conflict and all the way up to a fight or physical assault. The school must deal immediately and effectively with any substantial disruption, whether the solution is peer mediation or discipline, which can range from detention to suspension or counseling sessions, to name a few.

What Discipline is Appropriate for Cyberbullying?

Discipline is appropriate when, as indicated as to how a school is responsible, when the conduct causes a “substantial disruption” to the school day. We do need to make a distinction between conflict and bullying here and that depends on if there is a power differential. If there is not a power differential among the parties, then it is conflict. When one imposes power over another within a relationship, it is classified as bullying in schools. This applies to in-person interactions and electronic interactions.

Schools must have cyberbullying in all its forms accounted for in their handbooks and discipline codes. Cyberbullying offenses should have proscribed consequences in the handbook that are to be carried out once an administrator finds a student guilty of a violation. Administrators have discretion and can mitigate recommended punishments as they see fit, depending on the particular circumstances of a case. Either way, an effective policy should serve as a deterrent and have an end goal in mind in order to fully resolve the matter.

Strategies for How to Prevent Cyberbullying

Schools should have an active and ongoing “campaign” against cyberbullying. This can be conducted through school assemblies and addressed by administration and other staff, including online awareness campaigns, counseling, peer mediation groups, anonymous reporting channels, and, when necessary as referenced earlier, discipline.

It is important that the school regularly and vigilantly follows up on every case of cyberbullying. This must become ingrained in the school culture. Schools can have all the programs and measures that I have talked about throughout this article and they will be meaningless if the administration is not serious about them. Students will pick up on this right away and it may greatly influence whether they take part in anti-social online behavior.

In this article, I have outlined the definition, forms, consequences, and hopefully deterrents of cyberbullying. If you are an upper level administrator, it is your responsibility and duty to address these threats on an ongoing basis. Familiarize yourself with the apps your students use, stay current on the literature that is out there on this topic, and keep your eyes and ears open to chatter that is going around the school. You will not have the savvy your students have with technology (most of the time), but you should equip yourself with all the information possible to possibly deter and then properly react to cyberbullying issues. Most importantly, build a good preventive awareness campaign at your school. Make it part of your culture and promote a positive and healthy approach to online use.

*Updated February, 2021
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