As Cyberbullying Increases, Positive School Climate Decreases

Student Involvement Must Be Part of the Solution. . . How to Do It

Dear Colleagues,


   I receive about fifteen or twenty e-mails a day from different national organizations, education news feeds, and professional list-servs.  While not exhaustive, they do a great job of keeping me up-to-speed on new national research and reports, and major issues and innovations in education and psychology.

   Many times (and you know this if you are a regular reader), I get frustrated with stories that overtly or covertly advocate programs that:

  • Lack scientific validation and comprehensive field-testing;
  • Are “known or implemented” simply because they are promoted by publishers, foundations, or even the U.S. Department of Education (or its incestuously-funded network of Technical Assistance Centers); and
  • Are actually “public interest” stories that some educators read as “professional truths.”

   At other times, I see interesting stories, and I copy them into a single envelope on my computer where they germinate with other stories that don’t initially appear to relate to each other. . . but eventually do.

   When preparing my “next” Blog message, I often visit this envelope when I don’t have a “hot” issue, theme, or concern that needs immediate attention.  And, more often than not, like a wine blended with different grapes that age together in unexpected ways, two or three very different stories blend together. . . resulting in a message that hopefully adds a different perspective to an important educational issue or activity.

   In essence, this is how today’s Blog message evolved.

   This Blog addresses the critical issue of cyberbullying.  But it emphasizes the need to listen to and involve our students because—ultimately—they will be the ones to “solve” the problem. 

   It then sprinkles in some wisdom from a Forbes article, “You Can’t Just Transform Your Business, You Need to Transform Yourself as Well,” and a “Negotiations Preparation Checklist” from the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard University Law School.  While not directly related to cyberbullying, these two resources add critical value to the discussion and my school-centered recommendations.

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Cyberbullying: A Definition, Bullying for Today’s Students, and the Extent of the Cyberbullying Problem

A Definition

   Cyberbullying has been defined as the willful and repeated harm that is inflicted on a student through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.  Cyberbullying includes e-mails, texts, blogs, social networking posts, videos and pictures, and other electronic messages that are intended to embarrass, ostracize, humiliate, bully, threaten, or harass one or more students. 

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Bullying for Today’s Students

   A June 3, 2019 Education Week article by Kelson Goldfine from YouthTruth discussed their recently released report, Learning from Student Voice: Bullying Today.  YouthTruth is a San Francisco-based national non-profit that directly surveys student to give educators feedback on the impact and meaningfulness of their school initiatives.  The Bullying Today report analyzed student responses from the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 school years regarding their experiences with and perceptions of school climate, safety, and bullying. 

   During the 2017-18 school year, for example, YouthTruth analyzed the anonymous feedback from over 160,000 students across 37 states in grades five through twelve.  They discovered that most bullying happens in person, and that victims believed they were bullied (in rank order) because of their appearance, their race or skin color, and because other students thought they were gay.

   The primary accumulated results in the Report were:

  • Just over half of students feel safe at school. 59% of students feel safe at school generally. More specifically, 54% feel safe in hallways, restrooms, and locker rooms. Similarly, 55% say they feel safe on school property outside the school building.
  • Bullying and peer-on-peer harassment remain common and are increasing. Only 66% of students report that adults at their school try to stop bullying and harassment, and a recent report shows bullying is on the rise.
  • Middle School students experience higher rates of bullying than high school students.
  • One in 3 students report that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves at school. The data show that middle school students experience higher rates of bullying than high school students, and they are more likely than high school students to observe physical fighting and feel that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves.
  • Majority White schools have higher rates of bullying.  In majority White schools, students of color experienced a steeper increase in bullying than white students last year.
  • Black or African-American students are more likely than white students to feel that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves. 41% of black or African-American students indicated they feel they must be ready to protect themselves at school, compared with only 21% of white students.

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Additional National Perspectives on the Extent of the Cyberbullying Problem

   A July 25, 2019 Education Week article summarized the latest school safety statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) in its July, 2019 publication, Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools: First Look Findings from the School Survey on Crime and Safety—2017-2018.

[CLICK HERE for Original Report]

   This Report is based on the School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS) which was developed by the NCES and has been administered seven times over the years.  The most-current SSOCS data were collected between February 20, 2018 and July 18, 2018 from on-line surveys e-mailed to a nationally representative, stratified, random sample of 4,803 public school principals.  In the end, 2,762 (62%) primary, middle, high, and combined schools completed the survey.

   The Education Week article compared the 2017-2018 SSOCS school year data with the 2015-2016 SSOCS school year data—the last previous time when the survey was given.

   All of this cyberbullying information is supplemented below with results from the March, 2018 NCES Report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2017.

[CLICK HERE for Original Report]

   This Report, the 20th such report in this series, integrates data collected between 2013 and 2016 from a variety of sources—including:

(N)ational surveys of students, teachers, principals, and postsecondary institutions. Sources include results from the School-Associated Violent Death Surveillance System, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the National Crime Victimization Survey and School Crime Supplement to that survey, sponsored by BJS and NCES, respectively; the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, sponsored by the CDC; the Schools and Staffing Survey, National Teacher and Principal Survey, School Survey on Crime and Safety, Fast Response Survey System, and EDFacts, all sponsored by NCES; the Supplementary Homicide Reports, sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Campus Safety and Security Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education; and the Program for International Student Assessment, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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   Briefly, the Education Week article summarized the following cyberbullying data from the July, 2019 NCES Report:

  • About a third of middle and high schools said they deal with cyberbullying at least once a week to daily. This represents an increase when compared to the 2015-16 school year survey data.
  • 33.1% of the middle schools and 30.2% of the high schools surveyed reported disciplinary problems stemming from cyberbullying at least once a week, or as often as every day. In contrast, only 4.5% of the primary schools surveyed reported similar cyberbully-generated discipline problems.

The middle and high school percentages above represented a slight increase from the last time these data were collected. . . in the 2015-16 school year. At that time, 25.9% of high schools, 25.6% of middle schools, and 4.2% of elementary schools reported disciplinary problems originating from cyberbullying at least once a week.

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   The March, 2018 NCES Report discussed cyberbullying data drawn largely from the 2015-2016 SSOCS.  Rather than reiterate this Report’s information on past incident levels of cyberbullying (as the 2017-2018 SSOCS data cited above are more current), we will review some of its additional contextual information on cyberbullying:

  • In 2015–16, about 12% of public schools reported that cyberbullying had occurred among students at least once a week at school or away from school. 7% of public schools also reported that the school environment was affected by cyberbullying, and 6% of schools reported that staff resources were used to deal with cyberbullying.
  • During the 2015–16 school year, about 93% of public schools reported that they provided training on safety procedures (e.g., how to handle emergencies) for classroom teachers or aides, and 84% of schools reported providing training on classroom management. Schools also reported providing training to classroom teachers and aides on schoolwide discipline policies and practices related to cyberbullying (67%), bullying other than cyberbullying (79%), violence (69%), and alcohol and/or drug use (42%).
  • During the 2015–16 school year, a greater percentage of public middle schools than of high schools and primary schools reported providing training on discipline policies and practices for cyberbullying and bullying other than cyberbullying. Similarly, a greater percentage of middle schools than of high schools and primary schools reported providing training on recognizing physical, social, and verbal bullying behaviors.
  • Similarly, a higher percentage of larger schools and urban and suburban schools reported providing training on safety procedures and discipline policies and practices for cyberbullying than schools with less than 300 students and rural schools, respectively.

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Cyberbullying: What Schools Can Do

   Even though it occurs largely off campus, the vast majority of states have cyberbullying laws or policies that focus on school-aged students, and that require a written school policy and school sanctions.  This has occurred in response to a number of cyberbullying suicides, and research linking cyberbullying to low self‐esteem, suicidal thoughts, academic problems, school violence, delinquent behavior, and family problems.

   While involving elements of teasing, taunting, bullying, and harassment, cyberbullying is somewhat unique and potentially more traumatic or harmful (than face-to-face bullying) because:

  • Victims may not know who the bully is, how or why they have been selected, or what the bully’s intent or goal is;
  • Even when they do know the bully, victims may not know who else has seen or received the message or post—thus putting them in a potentially powerless and defensive position;
  • Victims may decide to (unwisely) respond with a return post—running the risk of being misinterpreted, exacerbating the problem, or being perceived as a bully-victim or a victim-casualty;
  • A post or exchange can inadvertently escalate to involve entire schools, communities, states, and countries if the story, picture, or post “goes viral;”
  • The bullying may be easier (for the bully) because (a) it is anonymous or invisible, (b) it is empowering as it cannot be immediately defended, or (c) it has no immediate consequences—as there are no bystanders to provide negative feedback or administrators to hold the bully accountable; and
  • The post may result in others “liking it,” or forwarding it to others—resulting in a continuation, reinforcement, or compounding of reactions (or assaults to) the victim. 

   From an educational perspective, districts and schools need to consider the importance of:

  • Having an explicit Cyberbullying section of their Student Handbook or Code of Conduct that extends existing discussions of Teasing, Bullying, and Harassment;
  • Discussing district and school Cyberbullying policies and procedures with students and parents, from at least the Grade 3 level on, at the beginning of every school year;
  • Providing at least quarterly sessions (or updates) on Cyberbullying education—integrating them into broader discussions on computer use and safety, virtual responsibility and etiquette, internet copyright and plagiarism, and social media limits and expectations; and
  • Extending the discussions above to parents and guardians (in joint sessions with their children whenever possible) so that they can understand their potential responsibilities for cyber-safety and prosocial interactions, and support the school’s policies, procedures, and preventative approaches across the student body.

   The student training and/or discussions should occur in small classroom groups, and they should focus on helping students (a) to share their social media experiences and concerns; (b) to analyze and understand the effects of cyberbullying; (c) to teach students ways to respond to direct and indirect acts of cyberbullying; and (d) to facilitate students’ commitment to each other relative to maintaining consistently positive and responsible virtual interactions.

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Adding Organization and Value to Cyberbullying Prevention and Intervention

   Based on the surveys and information above, if a district wanted to prioritize its strategic cyberbullying planning, prevention, and implementation, it would focus on its middle/junior high schools, and then on its high schools.

   In addition, because cyberbullying is largely a peer-to-peer social interaction—albeit a negative one—that occurs mostly off school grounds and before/after school hours, districts and schools need to integrate a “peer control” element to the plan.

   In fact, there are at least eight interdependent elements to a comprehensive cyberbullying prevention to intervention plan:

  • Building strong and consistent positive relationships between students, staff, and parents that occur in class, across the common areas of the school, and outside of school.
  • Building a strong and consistent school culture that supports the common good and “paying it forward,” social justice and equity, prosocial interactions and social problem-solving, and tolerant and ethical behavior.
  • Providing students with information on the definitions and effects of bullying and cyberbullying, and on the school and district’s proactive and prosocial expectations—both for individual students and “by-standing” peer groups, and its consequences and accountability measures in these areas.
  • Providing students with the consistent and ongoing hands-on social, emotional, and behavioral skill training needed at the prevention, response, and support levels.

The prevention level should involve the interpersonal social skills and social problem-solving thoughts or “scripts” that prevent cyberbullying from ever occurring.

The response level should involve how cyber-victims should best respond to and address cyberbullying incidents, and then how cyberbullies should respond when they are held accountable or confronted on their behavior.

The support levels should involve the interpersonal social skills and social problem-solving thoughts or “scripts” for bystanders or peers who witness or are tangentially involved in a cyberbullying incident so they can both support the cyber-victim and deliver a “message” to the cyberbully that such behavior will not be tolerated or reinforce.

  • A consistently implemented student, peer group, grade-level, and school-level positive motivational system that recognizes (and may periodically reward) students and peer groups for prosocial and effective social problem-solving interactions as related to cyberbully-prevention behavior.
  • A consistently implemented grade- and school-level behavioral accountability system (built into the Code of Conduct) that identifies different levels of consequences, remedial responses, and administrative actions for different intensity levels of cyberbullying.
  • Multi-tiered options where students (especially cyberbullies and cyber-victims) who need additional, more personalized, or more strategic or intensive services, supports, or interventions to address their (more clinical or therapeutic) needs have access to counselors, social workers, or school psychologists.
  • An outreach process and program involving ongoing communication, collaboration, training, and supports to parents/guardians and to other relevant community-based leaders, agencies, or groups.

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Pulling in Student Voices, Discussion, Leadership, and Self-Advocacy

   Part of the plan outlined above—as briefly discussed in an earlier section of this Blog message—involves student (student-led) discussions that result in students taking the consistent and ongoing lead and responsibility for cyberbullying prevention and early response.

   As I have said in the past:  There are more “of them” (meaning the students) than there are “of us” (meaning the adults).  And if students and different peer groups become advocates and activists for the positive peer interactions that prevent bullying and cyberbullying, then that “leverage” will go a long way toward solving the problem.

   This means that schools need to give students time to talk with each other—to create, implement, evaluate, and sustain viable and powerful approaches that are integrated into the comprehensive plan above.  This is an essential component because, once again, the students are the ones “doing” the cyberbullying, and most of it occurs outside of the school day and away from the “schoolhouse door.”

   And yet, some schools avoid this important step because of time, scheduling, and logistics, and some because they are uncomfortable or afraid of what might occur or be discussed during the student sessions.

   To overcome some of these “barriers of concern,” let’s briefly call on Brian Gorman, a Forbes Magazine executive business coach.  In a July 19, 2019 article, You Can’t Just Transform Your Business, You Need to Transform Yourself As Well, Gorman stated:

Transformation is a change that cannot be reversed. It is not a “water, ice, water, steam, water” kind of change, but rather a “caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly” change. It requires shifting how people think about things, how they do them and even what they are doing. Transformation is difficult to undertake, and even more difficult to sustain to a successful conclusion.
Most business owners and corporate executives intellectually understand these realities. What they tend to overlook is one additional truth: You can’t transform your organization without transforming yourself.
Organizations are ultimately reflections of their leadership. Employees not only hear the words of their leaders; they observe their actions. And, as is often said, “actions speak louder than words.” The words and actions of leaders at all levels, from the top of the organization down to frontline supervisors, have shaped the organization that you have today.
Reshaping it requires transforming the words and actions of its leaders.

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   Gorman then asks transformational leaders to ask themselves five questions.  I would like to reframe these questions as it relates to the importance of giving students time to plan and systemically address their own cyberbullying issues.

   To the administrative leaders of every middle and high school across the country, I respectfully ask you to ask yourselves the following questions (as they are relevant):

  • “What can I let go of?”

Are there attitudes, expectations, beliefs, barriers, or past events that are holding you back from organizing (or delegating the responsibility for) a series of student leadership forums that can begin the process of generating a schedule of small group student discussion that will result in an approved student-directed plan to address cyberbullying?

How can you “let go” of these self-limiting self-statements to begin this process?

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  • “What is it that only I can do?”

As leaders, what are the actions—related to addressing cyberbullying—that only you can do or that only you should do?  What district, parent, or community actions are ones that only you—in your leadership or administrative role—can take?  What are the symbolic actions that you need to take to communicate that this issue and effort are essential?

When will you take these actions?

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  • “What are my anchors, and how do you have to adjust them?”

Gorman stated, “We all have anchors that hold us in place and provide a sense of stability. In orderto successfully change, we have to change our relationship to some of thoseanchors, holding them more tightly, letting them out, or even letting them gocompletely.”

Do you have any “anchors” that need to be transformed?  Relative to your student body?  your staff?  your parent or community constituencies?  your administrative colleagues or district leaders?

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  • “What is undermining my success?”

This may be a generic question that may transcend the cyberbullying issue, or it may be centered on cyberbullying and your beliefs about it and how you prioritize it relative to other professional issues.

If you and your school or district are already successfully addressing cyberbullying, how are you sustaining these efforts over time?  If you are not addressing this issue, at least collect the objective (student generated) data needed to determine if you should.

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  • “How do I strengthen my self-care?”

Here, I am going to suggest to my administrative colleagues that you look to your mental health staff (your counselors, social workers, and school psychologists) for your “self-care.”  Cyberbullying is a psychoeducational phenomenon, and your mental health colleagues may have the knowledge, training, and perspectives that you need for your ultimate success.

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Getting Your Students to Talk with Each Other

   Clearly, just because you provide your students with a forum within which to discuss cyberbullying, there is no assurance that they will talk to each other.  This requires trust and protection, honesty and candor, commitment and communication, and foresight and self-insight.

   It also may require organization and preparation.

   For example, you may want to involve a “planning group” of students who represent different constituencies from across your student body, and who are well-respected by (not just popular among) their peers.

   You may want to conduct an anonymous survey of the student body so that you have not just information on different facets of cyberbullying in your school, but also information to discuss in your student groups.

   Finally, you may want to prepare a series of questions (embedded into some semi-structured group activities) that can guide the student (student-led) discussions.

   To this final end, below are some questions from a “Negotiations Preparation Checklist” from the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard University Law School.  In many instances, all I did was to swap the word “negotiation” with the words “cyberbullying initiative and group discussion.”  Feel free to adapt even these questions, or add your own.

   These questions are for the students:

What do you want from this cyberbullying initiative and group discussion? List your short-term and long-term goals.

What are the strengths—values, skills, and assets—that you can bring to this cyberbullying initiative and group discussion?

What are your concerns relative to this cyberbullying initiative and group discussion?

Who else needs to be involved in this initiative and discussion? What do they have that you need?

What lessons can you apply from past cyberbullying initiatives or group discussions to improve the outcomes of this one?

Where, when, and how should the cyberbullying initiative take place?

What is your investment in the cyberbullying initiative and group discussion?

What incentives, assurances, or other needs to you have in order to fully participate in this cyberbullying initiative?

What are your “non-negotiables”—things that, if present, will result in your opting-out or not participating in the initiative?

What is the high, but realistic, goal(s) that you would like this initiative to reach?

Why do you think some of your peers engage in cyberbullying? What are they getting out of it, and how important is this behavior/interaction to them?

What do you will motivate the cyberbullies away from these behaviors/interactions?

What is your relationship with the students who are cyberbullying? How might your past relationship affect this initiative?

Are there cultural differences that we should prepare for?

Are there any peer leaders and/or peer groups who are influencing others relative to different incidents of cyberbullying?

Who should be leading the cyberbullying initiative (consider staff, students, parents, community leaders)? Who should be the spokespeople?

Are you ready (or what would make you ready) to engage in this initiative?

What other parties need to be part of the planning and group discussions for the cyberbullying initiative?

What outcomes will tell us that the initiative has been successful?

Is this initiative realistic, and will it result in meaningful benefits if successful?

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   Cyberbullying is a significant problem in today’s schools and among today’s youth.  But solutions must be systemic, strategically planned and executed, and integrated into the safety and social, emotional, and behavioral processes of each school.

   It is critical that students be actively involved in the planning, and that schools give them as much responsibility for directly addressing the problem themselves as is realistic and possible.

   In the end, however, students must understand the potential effects of cyberbullying, that cyberbullies will be held accountable for their acts and involvement, that cyber-victims should report significant or persistent cyberbullying incidents to appropriate adults, and that schools have the right (and, in some states, are statutorily are required) to act—even when the cyberbullying occurs off-site.

   Said a different way, students need to know—relative to their schools’ behavioral expectations and accountability—that, as it relates to social media and cyberbullying in particular, they now live “in a 24/7 world.”  If their use of social media (including cyberbullying) has the potential to negatively impact the climate and interactions within their school or district, administrators have the responsibility and right to act accordingly.

  While the ultimate goal is to prevent cyberbullying, schools still need to prepare and use a continuum of responses to deal with it strategically and definitively if the preventative activities are not successful.

   At the same time, when using any Code of Conduct consequence, administrative action, or social remediation, the ultimate goal is to motivate students to eliminate future cyberbullying incidents, while increasing their prosocial and social problem-solving interactions.

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   As we begin the new school year, we know that schools need to establish positive, safe, proactive, and prosocial climates and interactions, and practices that focus on prevention and early response.  When successful, these schools will likely have the highest levels of student engagement, and academic and behavioral success.

   This is not always easy, but it is always necessary.

   I look forward to your thoughts and comments regarding this Blog message. 

   Know that I am always available to provide a free hour of telephone consultation to those who want to discuss their students, school, or district needs.  Feel free to contact me at any time if there is anything that I can do to support your work. . . now, and as we proceed into this new school year.