All it takes is internet access and a dose of “keyboard courage” to damage confidence that has taken a lifetime to shape.
Cyberbullying, or willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text, involves an attack on someone’s reputation or image.
It can occur any time and anywhere, whether a child is alone or in public, whereas in-person bullying ceases when a child is physically left alone. Children are often bullied in both ways at the same time.
Rob Frescoln, assistant principal at Culbreth Middle School, said cyberbullying can occur in a variety of forms, from Yik Yak to fake Facebook profiles, mean tweets to Ask.fm posts.
The bullying is often anonymous and distributed instantly to a wide audience, and it is then difficult to delete entirely from the internet.
Cyberbullying is a threat to schools because it can make children reluctant to come to class, Frescoln said. He said it affects student performance and takes time away from staff members who try to investigate and “fix” the damage.
A Growing Problem
In 2013, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey found that 15 percent of all high school students were electronically bullied in the past year.
The survey, which is conducted by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, randomly chooses school districts from the state to conduct the survey every two years, which is in an attempt to accurately capture the rapid change in the technological trends of children.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools continues to give the survey, even if it is not selected to participate officially in the survey. The 2013 survey found that 13.9 percent of middle school students and 17.7 percent of high school students experienced cyberbullying.
Frescoln said there is not much of a difference between middle school and high school forms of cyberbullying aside from sophistication of language and digital prowess.
Scarlett Steinert, coordinator of Healthful Living & Athletics for CHCCS, said they look forward to seeing the results from 2015 and making goals from the survey to help their students grow.
“This is really the first generation to grow up with cyberbullying as an unfortunate reality,” she said. “We need to continually survey our students and work to educate them on strategies and protocols for cybersafety.”
Schools Fight Back
That’s why schools are taking actions to prevent cyberbullying on school grounds in ways that do not involve the law — like Culbreth Middle School, which is having a social media summit.
The summit encourages students to think of how their online presence can affect others as well as their own reputations.
Gary Kayye, a professor at UNC and the founder of rAVe Publications, led a workshop for student council representatives and members of a group called Positive Cougars, which promotes positive behavior at school.
“Starting in high school is too late,” Kayye said. “We need to start teaching kids how to use social media responsibly and properly as soon as possible.”
After Kayye’s presentation, the students created a social media constitution as a group, which was then presented to the whole school.
The workshop was part of a movement to combat cyberbullying by using positive change instead of focusing on punishment and legislation.
Jason Bales, the instructional technology facilitator at Culbreth, said he’d like to organize the same thing again in the coming years, but he wants to make it bigger by holding it earlier in the year and having the entire school attend.
He said kids are interested in leading the school to positive change through social media — something that diverges from the current trend.
Frescoln said the summit was not inspired by one specific cyberbullying incident — he said what they have encountered has been minor, but they would rather be proactive than reactive.
James Barrett, parent and member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School’s Board of Education, said that there is a character education piece that needs to be taught to the children, and they need to recognize the high level of impact their words have on their peers.
Nancy Kueffer, behavioral specialist for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School System, said, “Educating students on being responsible with use of technology is a part of our curriculum, but parents need to also be having this discussion.”
Regulating the Web
According to Laura Gasaway, a professor at the UNC School of Law, lawyers are rarely involved in cyberbullying cases, but North Carolina has a comprehensive series of laws to protect the rights of those who were bullied.
It encompasses a variety of behaviors that target not only student-on-student bullying behaviors, but adult behaviors as well.
Examples of what is legally considered cyberbullying include building fake websites, posing as someone else, following someone to a website or chat room, encouraging people to post private or personal information, posting real or doctored images on the internet and a variety of other things, all with the intention to intimidate or torment someone.
Violating any cyberbullying law is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor if the defendant is 18 or older at the time of the offense. For minors, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Most states, including North Carolina, adopted language similar to what was used by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education — the severity of the harassment must be pervasive enough to hinder the student’s ability to effectively learn. Whether a school can discipline students for behaviors that occur off campus is a major issue.
Teaching Online Conduct
For Frescoln, the issues of cyberbullying go beyond the law and what school administration can do to punish offenders.
“Yes, kids are doing really mean things to each other,” he said. “But more kids are doing damaging things to themselves through sending and receiving sexually explicit materials, saying mean, ugly or ignorant things, or sharing other things with the world that might come back and bite them in the future.”
Frescoln said for now, influence should be on creating a dialogue about the digital image of students and not just reacting to cyberbullying incidents.