Federal Commission on School Safety gains insight on cyberbullying

U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions gathered insights into how cyberbullying and social media may affect violence and student safety during a recent meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety.

Over the coming months, the commission will continue to host formal commission meetings as well as listening sessions and field visits, which will help shape their forthcoming report on potential actions to improve school safety.

Sameer Hinduja, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of its Cyberbullying Research Center, said his research on cyberbullying and other issues that occur on social media found that out of 5,700 middle and high school students across the country, 34 percent have been cyberbullied and 12 percent reported bullying someone else on social media.

“Most important to me is how negative experiences online unnecessarily compromise the healthy flourishing of our youth at school where they spend over 6.5 hours each day,” he told the commission members.

According to his research, more than 60 percent of the students surveyed said cyberbullying “deeply affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school.”

Indeed, his research has also tied cyberbullying to low-self-esteem, anxiety, family problems, academic struggles, delinquency, school violence, and suicidal thoughts and attempts, he noted.

‘Meaningful guidance’

“Even though states work hard to get meaningful guidance into the hands of school districts, schools across each state are often left to figure out through trial and error what kinds of strategies they should put into place,” Hinduja said. “School administrators and counselors are simply not sure what to do. … Efforts must be relevant, research-based and systemic.”

His recommendations, which he said are not “app- or cyber-specific,” include the following:

  • Address school climate. Ensure students share a sense of connectedness and belonging, emotional warmth, peer respect, morale, safety and school spirit. Specific school programing to this end may help stem cyberbullying, as most incidents among youth occur between students who know each other from school.
  • Focus on social norming. This has to do with modifying the environment or culture within a school so that appropriate behaviors online are not only encouraged but are widely perceived to be the norm. Schools can highlight the majority of youth who do use social media in positive and constructive ways. This will help get the minority on board.
  • Promote student-led initiatives. Students can effect change on their campuses and peer groups better than adults. Since teens are fully immersed in all things technological and social, it is critical to get them to lead efforts.
  • Build student resilience. Students with high resiliency to bullying are more likely to report this behavior to schools or the app on which it occurred, block the harasser, and log out of social media. They believe in themselves and their ability to do something about the problem. Those with lowest level of resiliency, on the other hand, tend to suffer silently.

Local programming

Paul Gausman, superintendent of schools for the Sioux City (Iowa) Community School District, implemented programs to prevent school-based bullying, including a model that appoints students to serve as mentors and to teach their peers how to prevent school violence.

“Bullying is best defeated by prevention,” Gausman said. “Bullying that takes place on cell phones and other devices and through social media platforms has presented those of us who lead schools with new challenges that simply cannot be mitigated with previous solutions. We must consider new solutions specific to social media and cyberbullying and the impact on schools and communities.

“We deal with the challenges of a bullying situation that did not begin in school … but students get back to the school for learning, and it becomes a challenge that requires everyone to get involved.”

A district policy allows school staff to investigate, discipline students, and create a safety plan for cyberbullying victims. But he said challenges arise in reviewing incidents of bullying and monitoring behaviors outside the school day, particularly when bullying is not captured with a screen shot or if fake accounts used for cyberbullying cannot be traced.

“While the district can petition social media platforms to remove accounts that are used for bullying — [and] social media organizations sometimes do — they are not able to assist us in ascertaining the account creators, limiting our ability to take action,” Gausman said.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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