March 12, 2019
Here is What Teachers Can (and Can’t) Do About Online Harassment in Schools
We all know that bullying happens. It has for decades, centuries, millennia—and adults have often felt powerless about it when it happens to their children or students. The coming of the digital age, unfortunately, has only exacerbated these problems, lending a shroud of anonymity and the power of social millions to the cause of bullying.
This isn’t to say that the online world is a wholly dangerous place, nor that we should ban children from its use. Nevertheless, we do need to take care that we put reasonable safeguards in place.
In all the hustle of making teachers aware of digital citizenship, and stressing that we all have responsibilities to stand up against online bullying and harassment, the question isn’t should we do something about it, but rather what teachers can actually do in these instances. Moreover, how does mandatory reporting come in, and what boundaries must teachers beware of crossing in their intent to do good?
A Case Study: Online Harassment in Schools
Suppose a student trusts a teacher enough to confide in them that they are being cyberbullied and harassed by someone. Maybe that bully is known in the school, or maybe they are anonymous. The bully could be older or the same age, and in some cases, while the student might recognize the bully, they might not know their name. In the case that the bully is anonymous, the person may be outside of the school altogether.
Whatever the situation, the student feels terrified and confused, helpless in the face of the bullying and unsure how to proceed. And they've come to the teacher and said one of the most often difficult phrases for a terrorized student to utter: "Help me."
The question isn’t should we do something about it, but rather what teachers can actually do in these instances.
Firstly, the teacher should thank the student for reporting to them, making sure the student feels comforted by the fact that they shared the story instead of hiding it. The teacher should reassure the student that they’ll do everything they can to help.
But from there? The waters get a little muddier. What exactly are a teacher's rights and responsibilities in dealing with a student being harassed online?
Who to Call for Help with Online Harassment
No matter what the report, teachers should not try to handle the bullying on their own. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are several people whom the teacher should inform immediately, including:
- School counsellor
- School principal
- School superintendent
- State Department of Education
If the teacher is the one to whom the student reported the bullying, they should also tell the parents. In the event that parents report to teachers, the teacher should take over in contacting the above parties. However, they should do so in partnership with the parents, in order to provide as much information as possible to other adults.
Each stakeholder has a role to play. Teachers and parents are primary respondents when it comes to the student reporting. They must make a welcome space for the child to bring new information, as well as comfort the child about what is happening. To the extent that they can, depending on the age of the student and their emotional maturity level, they should also try and help roadmap what steps the adults are taking. Understanding in a concrete fashion what adults are doing to try and help them can give kids a sense of comfort that someone is looking out for them, which is critical when they’re being victimized.
Each stakeholder has a role to play. Teachers and parents are primary respondents when it comes to the student reporting.
The role of the counselor is to interact with the student clinically, watching for signs of a disturbance in the student and providing another layer of reassurance. The principal plays a serious role in engaging with authorities as well as other school districts, should that be necessary. It’s important that teachers familiarize themselves upfront with the role everyone is playing so that they can bring new information to the correct parties.
In some cases, authorities may wish to establish a direct relationship with the teacher and parents as they track the situation going forward.
What CAN Teachers Do?
Teachers are free to take the normal classroom or playground management steps they would with a student in their classroom or outside, assuming the online bully goes to the same school as the student. That means timeouts, talks or being sent to the principal’s office.
If they hear about online bullying but don’t see it, they can sit down with the bully and talk through the matter, usually in concert with a member of administration, to help them understand the consequences going forward – and often to work out social or emotional issues with which they’re suffering. It is in these cases that restorative practices may be applied to great benefit if done wisely.
In moderate bullying cases, this is often enough. However, online bullying brings a more pernicious element to the situation, in which the bully takes action behind closed doors.
What CAN’T Teachers Do?
Unfortunately, just as in the adult world, teachers can only do so much with hearsay. If they’ve spoken to the alleged bully and their parents and have not gotten either a) a confession or b) promises of help dealing with the problem, they may feel at an impasse. Since bullying isn’t typically a criminal issue, it’s hard to take more drastic steps regarding online accounts or activity.
In that case, as a teacher, you must resist the urge to attempt further dealings with the bully on your own. This could only lead you to become too emotionally invested and potentially make a mistake that might jeopardize your job.
What If the Bully Can’t Be Found or Stopped?
Sadly, in some cases, it’s impossible to identify the bully or the bully is outside the school district’s jurisdiction. In the latter case, the school may be able to contact the bully’s school or the police to deal with the behavior. In the former case, the only recourse is to help the student deal with the problem internally. That means:
- Working with the parents to create a support network for the child
- Advising about counseling
- Providing counseling in-school
- Working with police, if necessary, to ensure the student’s safety
Of course, there’s another component of online harassment in schools: when the student doesn’t report.
What Can Teachers Do When They DON’T Have Specific Reports?
Unfortunately, especially in the older years but even in very young grades, students are often afraid to report their bullies. Either the bully has specifically threatened harm or humiliation to them if they report, or they simply fear that this will happen. This means teachers, in addition to dealing with outright reports, must watch even more carefully for signs of bullying. That includes:
- Depression, sadness and anxiety
- An inability to concentrate or complete tasks
- A decrease in self-care and grooming
- Decreased appetite or weight loss
- General ill health
In such cases, teachers must step in as soon as possible to question the student about the cause of their distress. It’s important to help students understand that talking to adults is safe and that the bullying is in no way their fault (since unfortunately, shame is also a common outcome of bullying). From there, teachers can make specific inquiries into individual cases of online harassment in schools as well as overall trends or problem students, then take the necessary steps forward.
Being a teacher is hard, sometimes, especially when you see good kids falling victims to bad behavior. With the steps above, however, you have a much better chance of saving those kids from further harm, both physical and emotional, so add them to your repertoire today.