Feature                                                      Pages 33-37


The Basics of Cyberbullying

Legal considerations for punishing student behavior taking place off-site and off-hours 


Bridget Roberts-Pittman
Bridget Roberts-Pittman (center)


Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray” was the way The New York Times chose in June 2010 to headline its coverage of cyberbullying’s harmful impact on teaching and learning in schools today.

The news story portrayed the unusual and uncomfortable phenomenon of educators being asked increasingly to police misbehavior by students outside of the regular school day and typically at venues far removed from school grounds.

While parents may urge their children’s schools to intervene and stop the online bullying behavior that has become a regular occurrence, students themselves may take a contrary view of parental intervention for fear of more retaliation or out of a belief that school staff won’t take complaints seriously.

Students have a right to enter a safe and supportive learning environment. A few highly publicized online bullying attacks that contributed to tragic student deaths has ramped up the recent efforts of educators, researchers and legislators to address the issue.

Prevalence Rates
In 2009, a study conducted by Cox Communications asked 13- through 18-year-olds about their experiences with cyberbullying. About 15 percent admitted they had been victimized online and another 10 percent reported being bullied through a cell phone. On the issue of perpetuating cyberbullying behaviors, 7 percent admitted they had bullied someone else online, and 5 percent reported doing so with a cell phone.

When students ages 11-18 were asked to what extent they have been cyberbullied or experienced being cyberbullied, a 2010 study by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, indicated just over 20 percent of students reported being cyberbullied at some point in their life. The same percentage of students claimed they had bullied someone in their lifetime.

The center’s 2010 study of sexting involving students 11-18 found 7.7 percent had sent a naked or nearly naked photo of themselves, while 12.9 percent said they had received such a photo.

A 2007 study cited by Nancy Willard revealed that 13 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys reported cyberbullying another person. Girls also were at higher risk of being victims. In another 2007 study of 7th graders, Qing Li found more girls reported being cyberbullied: 60 percent were females and 52 percent were male students. Female students indicated a greater willingness to inform an adult.

Key Differences
Bullying is not simply the same act of misbehavior taking place electronically. While the two phenomena share common characteristics (use of power, harmful intent), distinct and important differences exist.

The first is the concept of power. Power in cyberspace is not measured by physical size or family income. Instead, power lies in the anonymity that is possible with cyber communication. By using a false name, a cyberbully can go undetected. Similarly, cyber communication can be difficult, although not impossible, to track and trace.

Further, cyberbullying through the use of a computer or cell phone can occur anytime. Finally, cyberbullies are able to reach a wide audience quickly.

Legal Considerations
Before the current, explosive use of personal technology, students who engaged in bullying behavior at school, on school grounds or during a school activity could be disciplined by school administrators for violating student conduct rules. With the advent and seemingly ubiquitous use of hand-held devices, students have access on a round-the-clock basis, challenging educators to address cyberbullying activity. School administrators generally do not have authority to discipline students for acts committed during nonschool hours and at venues removed from school property.

Brad Balch
Brad Balch

Some states have laws enabling school officials to discipline students for unlawful activity taking place during off-school hours and off of school grounds. The misbehavior does not necessarily have to be criminal in nature but could constitute a civil wrong, such as defamation or harassment. The unlawful activity of the student must have a nexus back to the school setting, such as the activity creates a risk of harm to other students, teachers or staff members while they are at school or it interferes with the educational function of the school.

Under the latter criteria, there must be an actual interference and not a perceived or an anticipated interference in order to discipline the student under this type of state law. School officials also must keep in mind students do have free speech rights and they cannot violate such rights by disciplining a student for engaging in a protected speech activity.

The vast majority of speech used in bullying or cyberbullying behavior will not be protected speech under free speech provisions nor will the bullying behavior likely be considered lawful activity. The key issue for handing out discipline will be whether individuals are at risk of harm when at school or the bully’s behavior interferes with the school’s educational function. School districts ought to review their state laws to determine the authority of school administrators to punish students for cyberbullying that takes place during nonschool hours and off school grounds.

Most states have laws prohibiting bullying and/or cyberbullying by students. This allows students to be disciplined for such activity if it takes place during school hours or activities, including time periods when students are traveling to and from their school and to and from school-sanctioned activities.

School officials ought to ensure their school’s student discipline code contains provisions prohibiting such activity and clearly states what conduct will be considered to be violations of these rules. These rules need to be enforced on a consistent basis, and all reports of bullying activity must be taken seriously by the administration and investigated promptly so students understand bullying is a serious offense. 


Nancy Willard on tactics for cyberbullying awareness and relevant federal court findings

Glossary of cyberbullying terms

Additional resources

Depending upon the evidence uncovered during the investigation, the students involved in the bullying incident may not receive severe disciplinary action, such as a suspension or expulsion. This may be due to the school’s step discipline policy or the lack of clear evidence of the severity of the bullying. Regardless, some punishment should be taken against a student who has engaged in bullying activity.

School administrators in most states also have statutory or legal authority to impose alternative disciplinary measures that are less severe than a suspension or an expulsion yet can be effective in addressing the underlying problems that lead to bullying behavior and in stopping the behavior. These alternative meas-ures include requiring counseling, rearranging offenders’ class schedules, assigning additional academic work, restricting attendance at or participation in extracurricular activities, assigning an alternative course of study and/or referral to the juvenile justice system.

Prevention Efforts
Is disciplining the bully the only action with which school administrators should be concerned? Clearly not. School officials need to keep in mind their duty of care for all students. This includes the bully and the victim.

Many state laws that prohibit bullying and/or mandate discipline of students who engage in bullying also require schools to provide educational and preventative programs on bullying to students, school staff members (not just classroom teachers) and parents. Implementing these programs for each of these school community groups provides an opportunity to create a safe environment for students. State laws require safe use of the Internet curriculum to be taught at all or most grades beginning at the elementary level. This curriculum should address cyberbullying, notably how to recognize it, report it and avoid getting involved in it.

School boards can adopt policies to address not only the student discipline issues surrounding bullying and cyberbullying but also the reporting of such activity, especially when it occurs off of school grounds and/or during nonschool hours. While a school may not be able to discipline a student for such action, it can provide counseling and/or intervention programs to help prevent future activity.

While the bullying activity takes place away from school, its effects on the student victim are present in the classroom as academic performance may be affected by the bullying. Prevention programs that address the well-being of students as well as the bully can be provided through collaboration with community resources or through outside grants. Implementing such programs shows the students that all levels of the school organization care for their safety and well-being.

This is another way for the school district to carry out its duty. School board policy ought to answer the questions “why?” and “what?” in its provisions addressing bullying and cyberbullying. The procedural details should come in the administrative guidelines or regulations developed to implement the policy.

Bridget Roberts-Pittman is director of training for the Ph.D. program in counseling psychology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. E-mail: Julie Slavens is staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, and Bradley Balch is dean of the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.


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