Three honors students in a Louisiana school were recently arrested and suspended after one created a "biggest queer" Web site targeting a fellow student, who retaliated by launching a graphically violent site directed at his so-called "prep" schoolmates. Similarly, a teenage girl in the system received more than 300 anonymous e-mail messages calling her the same offensive name. Such "cyberbullying"--using the Internet and electronic communications technologies to transmit hostile messages and images--is a serious and growing problem that affects every school district.
One of the earliest examples of cyberbullying happened after a 10th grader in Quebec used school video equipment to film an imagined "Jedi Warrior" fight using a golf ball retriever, but forgot to erase the tape. After other students uploaded the clip to Kazaa as a prank, the once-private fantasy spread rapidly across the Internet and was downloaded millions of times. The student was so humiliated by the notoriety and ridicule that he left the school and sought psychiatric help.
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The power of electronic communications technologies allows anyone to become a school cyberbully, which sadly can even include staff members. Some cyberbullies are the very students bullied by others in school, says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. "Cyberbullying is emerging as one of the more challenging issues facing educators and parents as young people continue to embrace the Internet and other mobile communication technologies," she says.
Since cyberbullying can occur through multiple channels that include e-mail, Web sites, online forums, chat rooms, blogs, instant messaging and voice/text sent to cell phones, it is difficult for districts to monitor and control. Cyberbullies often hide in online anonymity, may "hack" passwords that belong to others and operate outside of school. Furthermore, even severe bullying incidents are commonly not reported by victims who feel the attacks are somehow their own fault, or fear they may lose electronic communications privileges. Schools are therefore implementing multiple measures to protect their staff and students.
For example, in Massachusetts, after several students in the Boston Public Schools used school computers to send e-mail threats, pornography and simulated hit lists to staff and students, superintendent Thomas W. Payzant banned the district-wide access to Yahoo Mail, MSN Hotmail and other personal e-mail accounts that could not be monitored. "You can't take the chance," he says. Other districts have tried banning or limiting the use of IM, cell-phone text messages and the use of camera phones.
Each district needs clear policies on cyberbullying both inside and outside of school. This may mean establishing new guidelines, or extending present bullying policies to include online issues. For example, Washington Township (N.J.) Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Flemming sent a letter to families stating that the district will take disciplinary action when "cyberbullying and other forms of victimization disrupt the safe learning environment of our schools." Similarly, New Jersey's Plainfield Public School District Web site presents steps students can take when cyberbullying happens. These include cutting off communications immediately, saving and printing copies of all messages, looking for clues that identify the predator, telling a trusted adult and in life-threatening situations dialing 911.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, email@example.com, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Conn.