Cyberbullying is a real problem and it happens more often than we know or expect. Schools sometimes became aware of the problem but are poorly equipped to handle it. School staff might not know how to respond, what their competencies are and what is out of their area of expertise, how to respond to one-time incidents or how to develop a school-wide strategy if cyberbullying has escalated. Teacher and other school staff members often report that they would like to react, but do not know how and they feel powerless.
In this section, we will explore some basic guidelines and strategies for schools that wish to address specific cases of cyberbullying among students. Members of school staff will need to recognize the problem, explore it, plan, implement and evaluate an intervention or a strategy. The role of the multiplier in the intervention process is to be a facilitator, support person, and counselor. Multipliers cannot develop cyberbullying strategies and interventions for the school staff or instead of the school staff. They can, however, offer their knowledge and skills to help with the process. Most often, this will mean that they will help the school think and talk through the following steps:
- Recognizing incidents of cyberbullying
- Assessing incidents
- Reporting incidents
- Immediately responding to specific incidents
- Developing, implementing and evaluating a general strategy for dealing with cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is only one form of unacceptable behaviour that we might encounter among students. Schools often do not have a strategy or a procedure to deal specifically with cyberbullying; however, most schools have codes of conduct, policies for dealing with unacceptable behaviour or even counter-bullying policies. Cyberbullying should be dealt in the context of these policies.
Staff members usually become aware of cyberbullying through student reports, parent reports or by noticing problematic online activities or changes in student behavior. Awareness raising activities for school staff, especially information on how to recognize common signs that students might be victims of bullying and cyberbullying, can be very helpful.
The cyberbullying incident may take many forms and need different approaches. The first step is to think about the incident. Some of the key questions are:
- Impact: how extensive is the problem? How serious are the possible consequences?
- Location: where and when is the bullying happening? Cyberbullying is especially difficult to deal with because unlike “traditional” bullying it can happen anywhere and anytime.
- Duration: how long has the unacceptable behaviour been going on?
- Identity: does the person being bullied know who the bully or bullies might be? Cyberbullying can be especially challenging because the bully can be anonymous or the bullying can go viral and include many bullies and onlookers.
- Motivation: is there a motivation, a purpose behind the bullying? Is it possible the bully does not realize that his or her actions are cyberbullying? Does he or she come clean at an early stage and try to amend the damage that was caused?
- Evidence: what evidence is there of what happened?
- School context: how is the school involved? What can and cannot the school do? What is the school’s policy for dealing with such incidents?
Each case of suspected or alleged cyberbullying should receive an immediate response. If needed, a wider strategy should also be implemented.
If staff member suspects or is told about a possible cyberbullying incident, there are some steps they can take to immediately respond to the incident.
||Cyberbullying over mobile phones:
- Ask the student to show you the phone.
- Record the content of the inappropriate message or image. Include names, phone numbers and other identifying information.
- If the message is spoken, make a transcript.
- Tell the student not to delete the communication for the moment.
- Go with the student to the principal (or the person in charge of cyber safety if the school has one).
||Cyberbullying on computers:
- Ask the student to show you the inappropriate content on the computer screen. If the material is disturbing for the student, use other methods to locate it, such as checking browsing history.
- Record the material, save it to a secure location. Copies should not be accessible to the public.
- Print the problematic material out and save a hard copy in a safe place.
- Inform the principal or the person responsible for cyber safety.
- Talk to the student. Take the student’s statement, especially if there are concerns about child protection issues. When talking to the student, follow standard procedures for interviewing students.
Students that are victims of cyberbullying may need different types of support:
- Emotional support and reassurance that reporting the incident was the right thing to do.
- Advice not to take revenge, but to keep the evidence and show it to parents or staff members.
- Advice on how to prevent further hurtful communication (change passwords, block numbers or senders change numbers, report offensive content etc.)
- Take action to remove the problematic material, if possible
- Discuss contacting the police if the content might be illegal.
Offer students what you can and help them find support in areas you are not able to help them. School counsellors are usually key staff members for organizing a support strategy and support network for the student.
The nature of investigation will depend on each specific case of cyberbullying. It might include:
- Reviewing available evidence
- Saving available evidence (printing, taking a picture, saving on a secure location etc.)
- Interviewing students (victims, bullies, bystanders)
- Trying to identify the bully
- Looking at the media and technologies used
Take note that in most European countries, school staff members do not have the authority to search students’ belongings, including their phones, tablets, and other devices. You may ask the students to show you the devices and the content, but you cannot make them do it.
If the incident has signs of a criminal offense, the school is mandated to report to authorities and should be careful not to interfere with police investigations.
Working with the cyberbully or bullies is just as important as working with the victims. The consequences should be determined on an individual basis and should be in accordance with the rules and procedures the school has in place. Working with the bully should have the intention to:
- Help the victim to feel safe again
- Make sure the bullying stops
- Hold the bully accountable
- Help the bully recognize the harm and consequences of their actions so that it is less likely for behaviour to be repeated
- Demonstrate that cyberbullying and any kind of bullying is unacceptable behaviour, that it will not be tolerated by the school, and that the school has effective ways of dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
A strategic approach to cyberbullying is not always needed. Usually, a general strategy to ensure a good school climate, a strategy to develop students’ social skills and/or a conflict resolution strategy might be enough to prevent most cases or at least the most serious cases of cyberbullying.
If the school detects one isolated incident of cyberbullying, it should deal with that specific incident, but it might not make sense for a school-wide strategic approach. However, if there are many incidents or if their impact is potentially harmful, the school should review its existing policies and if needed, develop new ones.
Some of the tools that the school might use are:
- Develop a communication strategy for relevant target groups.
- Develop educational activities and skill building activities for relevant target groups.
- Review existing policies and procedures for dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
- Develop a crisis response plan and procedures to deal with unexpected incidents.
- Examine the school culture and the hidden curriculum and messages.
- Engage in a strategic planning process and plan for organizational change.