Cybering Bullying in Middle School

Following up on the story about adults trying to separate "best" friends and have kids have a wider group, there comes this lengthy - and disturbing - story from the NY Times about texting and bullying. The title is Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray.

The opening to it is a story from NJ about a couple of sixth graders, a boy and a girl. They had been "dating" for about a week and "broke up". The girl then received a dozen terrible and sexually-based text threads from his cellphone one Saturday night. Her parents came to school looking for relief. The school said it occurred out of school on a weekend and offered that the parents might want to call the boy's parents. Too awkward as both fathers coached sports together. (Which begs the question, who's the grown-up? If you are concerned enough, you'll put the coaching aside.) The school asked about the police but the parents were reluctant because of the formality of a criminal investigation and an uncertain outcome.

From the article:

Schools these days are confronted with complex questions on whether and how to deal with cyberbullying, an imprecise label for online activities ranging from barrages of teasing texts to sexually harassing group sites. The extent of the phenomenon is hard to quantify. But one 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, an organization founded by two criminologists who defined bullying as "willful and repeated harm” inflicted through phones and computers, said one in five middle-school students had been affected.

Affronted by cyberspace’s escalation of adolescent viciousness, many parents are looking to schools for justice, protection, even revenge. But many educators feel unprepared or unwilling to be prosecutors and judges.

Often, school district discipline codes say little about educators’ authority over student cellphones, home computers and off-campus speech. Reluctant to assert an authority they are not sure they have, educators can appear indifferent to parents frantic with worry, alarmed by recent adolescent suicides linked to bullying.

Whether resolving such conflicts should be the responsibility of the family, the police or the schools remains an open question, evolving along with definitions of cyberbullying itself.

Yes, what to do? Wait for the state legislatures to draft laws? Worry about your child's safety at school if he or she is being threatened?

According to the Anti-Defamation League, although 44 states have bullying statutes, fewer than half offer guidance about whether schools may intervene in bullying involving “electronic communication,” which almost always occurs outside of school and most severely on weekends, when children have more free time to socialize online.

A few states say that school conduct codes must explicitly prohibit off-campus cyberbullying; others imply it; still others explicitly exclude it. Some states say that local districts should develop cyberbullying prevention programs but the states did not address the question of discipline.

Judges are flummoxed, too, as they wrestle with new questions about protections on student speech and school searches. Can a student be suspended for posting a video on YouTube that cruelly demeans another student? Can a principal search a cellphone, much like a locker or a backpack?

In April, the burden of resolving these disputes had become so onerous that the principal, Mr. Orsini, sent an exasperated e-mail message to parents that made national news:

“There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site,” he wrote. If children were attacked through sites or texting, he added, “IMMEDIATELY GO TO THE POLICE!” That was not the response that the parents of the girl who had received the foul messages had wanted to hear.

So this principal said they would speak with the boy. It turns out that the girl had deleted her replies to the boy before showing her parents. And so, was a mutually abusive argument? Then the boy said he lost his cellphone that exact Saturday. The father of the girl wanted the boy suspended. However, the principal, using his head, looked at the texts and saw they were reasonably well-written; the boy in question was not doing well in his LA classes. He asked the boy to write a basic sentence and the boy's sentence was terrible. It turned the phone had been lost and someone found it and sent those messages but they never figured out who.

The larger issue than this particular story is how emotionally charged kids are in middle school.

When dozens of kids vote online, which is not uncommon, about whether a student is fat or stupid or gay, the impact can be devastating.

“In seventh grade, the girls are trying to figure out where they fit in,” Mrs. Wearley said. “They have found friends but they keep regrouping. And the technology makes it harder for them to understand what’s a real friendship.”

Because students prefer to use their phones for texting rather than talking, Mrs. Wearley added, they often miss cues about tone of voice. Misunderstandings proliferate: a crass joke can read as a withering attack; did that text have a buried subtext?

By high school kids tend to be more able to absorb the blows or ignore them or laugh them off. They have other interests than just a social life.

(Sidenote: I was talking with a friend's 15-year old son and asking why people would rather text or e-mail than talk. He said it was easier to get away with something - exaggeration or lying - if you were not able to see a face or hear a voice. Texting and e-mailing allow you to get away with much more. Smart kid.)

Apparently, at-school bullying still happens far more but now the two - cyber and at-school - are blending in together. But will kids tell?

Some students think they can handle the ridicule themselves. Or are just too embarrassed to speak up. Others fear that parents will overreact.

If the child is texting at school or has a Facebook page without permission, “and now they’re being bullied on it,” said Parry Aftab, executive director of, “they can’t admit it to parents. The parents will take away the technology and the kids are afraid of that. Or the parents will underreact. They’ll say: ‘Why read it? Just turn it off!’ ”

In the article, yet another cyber-bullying story comes out and it resulted in a court case as the father of the bully took the school to court for disciplining his daughter for bullying that happened outside of school. The bullying took place in a video posted on YouTube. The judge ruled that yes, the video could be linked to the school as the bully told other students and school officials saw it. BUT he said that he did not find the video caused "substantial" school disruption.

This legal test comes from a 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which a school suspended students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

The court overturned the suspension, but crafted a balance between a school’s authority and a student’s freedom of expression. When a student’s speech interferes substantially with the school’s educational mission, a school can impose discipline.

In the end the reasoning was that the parents need to discipline their child. (Apparently the father of the bully told his daughter "That wasn't a nice thing to do." Good job there dad.)

The article does cite the recent McClure bullying case where unkind comments were made on Facebook and the school suspended 28 students. The school also had assemblies about digital citizenship.

Is it possible to look at cellphone texts without violating the student's privacy rights? Apparently school administrators only need "reasonable suspicion" to search a locker or backpack and not "probable cause" as do the police. But they are unsure of what they can do about texts and Facebook pages.

Legal experts disagree on this issue. Professor James argues that cellphones are like backpacks: if the search’s purpose is reasonably related to a school infraction, like cheating, the principal’s search is legal. Others believe that cellphones belong in another category, protected by electronic communication privacy laws.

While a cellphone search may yield an incriminating text, it may not point to the author.

At one school every student gets a laptop and the principal monitors them closely.

They’re using the cameras on their laptops to check their hair and I send them a message and say: ‘You look great! Now go back to work.’ It’s a powerful way to teach kids: ‘I’m paying attention, you need to do what’s right.’ ”

Wonder if this will happen at Cleveland?

What is most concerning?

In April, a parent alerted Mr. Orsini about Formspring, a site on which comments can be sent anonymously to mailboxes, and posted at the mailbox owner’s discretion. Many adults seem confounded at why girls, in particular, would choose to post the leering, scabrous queries; some teenagers say they do so in order to toss back hard-shelled, tough-girl retorts.

The principal found the names of some Benjamin Franklin students on Formspring. As Mr. Orsini later recounted the experience, he couldn’t bring himself to utter even a sanitized version of the obscene posts he had read. His face reddened, tears filling his eyes. “How does a 13-year-old girl recover her sexual self-esteem after reading that garbage?” he whispered.

It prompted his e-mail message to parents, in which he wrote that no middle school student needed to be on social networking sites. Many parents agreed. But others said that schools and families should work harder to teach students digital responsibility.

Honestly, I feel for all you parents with kids this age. It's a lot to try to explain when many kids want a cellphone with texting. I am absolutely not saying a student can't have a cellphone but there is certainly a lot to think about. One thing that might help is to have an absolute rule about what happens if your child sends abusive texts of any kind to another student. If your child knows you will act - and immediately, especially if it means loss of the phone - it might just keep them on the straight and narrow.


Charlie Mas said…
The cameras on the STEM laptops will be disabled.
Megan Mc said…
The book Born Digital by John Palfrey does a good job exploring these issues.
Anonymous said…
The thing we need to remember is that bullying can be just as vicious WITHOUT the texting and social networking, and not to blame anything on a new medium-just as teen angst existed long before rock and roll got blamed for it.

I was the victim of some very nasty stuff, that I'm sure that seemingly naive principal would have trouble repeating-and it was in junior high almost 40 years ago. Kids didn't need to "hide" behind faceless online comments-they had no trouble saying them to my face or on the phone.

Luckily I had parents who supported me and helped me deal-in fact my online nick is a variation of the mocking name I was called back then, but changed and lovingly personalized by my family.

And it's not just "ancient history", my daughter's experienced some very nasty first person attacks in just the last couple of years. My personal favorite is the sweet-as-pie little girl who'd been in our house giving her notes that said things like "I was never your friend and I HATE your hair," then signed with hearts and flowers.

So yes, be aware that social media and cell phones open up a whole new avenue for bullies to attack their victims. But it's on us parents to set limits for our own kids so that those avenues are limited. Our up and coming middle schooler will have a cell phone next year, but we'll be paying extra to keep it off during school hours, limiting those who can call and test her, and reviewing anything she recieves. Social networking will stay far in the future, and when we allow that, we'll have full access to her sites.

Of course, we know there's always the chance that she'll get on elsewhere when we're not there-bso hopefully we'll have armed her with coping skills and she'll remember she can come to us with anything. That's what good parents do. But that's what good parents did before there were cell phones and Facebook too-right?
Hence my sarcasm at the father in the story who said "it wasn't nice". Maybe he told his daughter in stronger terms but I doubt it. As parents we have to be sure our children understand empathy - would they want someone to do this to them?
zb said…
my kid is younger, and I have to say, this article made me a bit hopeless for humanity. I'm at the stage when I'm hoping to see my girls become more independent and be given more freedom. And now, I'm worried that they might use it to be evil (or have evil inflicted upon them).

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