What We Can Do About Cyberbullying

October 5, 2018

Part 3 of a 3 part cyberbullying series

So, what can cyberbullying be?

Mediums through which cyberbullying often occur include cellular voice mail, emails, social media platforms, voting/rating sites, blogging sites, websites, virtual worlds, texting, and online gaming. No matter what the medium, cyberbullying includes but is not limited to:

1. Direct text messaging of threats or harassment. This could also include something called a “text war,” where the intent is to have a group of individuals target one person with an overabundance of text messages.

2. Stealing passwords. This can allow the cyberbully to have access to your accounts and pretend to be you while online. Once a person has your password, they can change your profile to something that could include sexual or racist remarks.

3. Inappropriate social media pages, blogs, or website creations that can contain nothing but lies about you, or even questionable pictures, but that are available for all to see.

4. Purposely sending inappropriate “morphed” (doctored) pictures to others, including friends and family.

5. Internet Polling/Voting Booths. Most online polling programs are free, and others can start a poll asking, “Do you think Jane Doe is easy to get into bed? Yes or no?” or “Who is the ugliest, fattest, or dumbest person in the school?” One such site to be aware of as a parent is

6. Outing. This is where the peer aggressor will share someone’s secret or embarrassing information online with others.

7. Purposely sending malicious software (viruses and trojans) to your computer.

8. Purposely sending porn and spam to your e-mail.

9. Physical threats to do you or others harm.

So, what can you do if a cyberbully is targeting you or a friend?

  • Know what cyberbullying/violence can be and tell an adult you trust that you are being targeted. If the adult you approach takes no action, find another one. We want you to keep telling people until someone helps to make it stop.
  • Ignore all cyberbullying attempts. If you take the bait, it will only get worse.
  • Restrict those who can communicate with you via e-mail, DMs, IM, and text.
  • Restrict others from being able to add you to their buddy list, which can usually be done in your privacy setting.
  • Google yourself and see what is out there on the WWW about yourself or a family member – the results may shock you. It’s also recommended that you set up “Google Alerts” to help monitor your digital presence online.
  • Block the sender – most social media platforms, IM and SMS apps have this feature.
  • Report the issue to the sender’s internet service provider (ISP). Most ISP’s have strict rules surrounding this issue.
  • If happening during school hours and from a fellow student, notify the school administrator immediately.
  • Remember to record, copy, screen capture, and save everything and take legal action where appropriate to do so.

Cyberbullying Signs:

Although it is not uncommon for targets of cyberbullying not to tell others that they are being victimized, there are several behavioural signs that parents, teachers, and guardians should be aware of to help identify a person who may need help:

  • A marked change in the youth’s computer or cellphone habits.
  • Appear angry, depressed, or frustrated after using the computer or cellphone.
  • Won’t say who they are talking to or texting with.
  • They have trouble sleeping.
  • Stomach and headaches.
  • Fear of leaving the house.
  • Crying for no apparent reason.
  • Frequent visits to a school nurse, wants to call parents to come and get them.
  • Lowered self-esteem.
  • A marked change in attitude, dress, or habits.
  • Unexplained broken personal possessions, loss of money, loss of personal items.
  • Stories that don’t make sense.
  • Missing or incomplete schoolwork and decreased success in studies.

What parents should do if your child is being targeted by a cyberbully:

Earlier, I noted that according to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing that they are being targeted:

1. Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behaviour and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and

2. Victims feel that adults are ill-equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner to resolve the situation.

This is why it is so important that when your child does disclose to you that they are a target of cyberbullying, you do not overreact as the parent by immediately banning your child from access to the internet via computer or cellphone. Although this may seem to be the easiest thing to do to deal with the issue, it does not ultimately deal with underlying issue that your child has been targeted. If your child believes that you will not react calmly in a rational manner to resolves the situation, disclosure will not take place and disclosure is the first step in the recovery process. Like it or not, internet access is an indispensable component to 21st century adolescence, and if your child believes that the banning of access will be the primary step you will take to deal with the issue, they will not disclose and they will continue to suffer alone.

So, what should a parent do once the child has disclosed that they are being targeted?

  • Remain calm and use choice speech such as, “I know that it must have been hard for you to come and tell me what is going on, but I am very glad you did, so let’s talk about how we are going to deal with this challenging issue.”
  • Ensure that your child is safe and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.
  • Figure out how far the bullying has gone.
  • Collect all evidence to support the fact that your child is being cyberbullied. (SMS texts, IM texts, DMs, voice mails, emails). This can be as simple as teaching your child to screen capture (screencap) and print and then paste into a word document.
  • Is the targeted bullying something that can be handled by your child changing their behaviour, such as not communicating with the bully or blocking the bully?
  • If the bullying took place on a website, report the abuse to that site. Remind your child how to block the person from contacting them online.
  • If they have had their email or social network hacked, have your child change their passwords.
  • Contact the parents of the cyberbully. I would recommend that this be done in person and ensure that you bring copies of the evidence mentioned in bullet point #3 to support your allegations. Remember that the other parent will likely be defensive, so ensure that you stay calm and professional and explain that you want to work with them to identify a reasonable resolution to the situation. Dr. Englander, an expert in aggression reduction, recommends the following “script” to help reduce the inevitable defensiveness of the bully’s parent, “I need to show you what your son/daughter typed to my son/daughter online. He may have meant it as a joke, but my daughter was really devastated by the messaging. A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person, and it can all be easily misinterpreted.”
  • Contact your child’s school and speak with the principal and let them know what is going on, what actions you have taken to deal with this issue, and the expectations you have of the school should the cyberbullying carry on during school hours.
  • Contact the internet service provider or cell phone carrier of the cyberbully and let them know that your child has been targeted using their service. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations, which they may ask for.
  • If the content of the cyberbullying involves threats, criminal harassment, or hate crimes then contact the police immediately. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations.
  • Seek a civil legal remedy, if appropriate and reasonable to do so.

What Can Schools Do?

A group of elementary school students in Pickering, Ontario in 2008 apologized for posting a video on YouTube mocking a schoolmate who had suffered a stroke. A fourteen-year-old student at Saskatoon’s E.D. Feehan High School found a video on the internet that showed herself being beaten up. In Burlington, Ontario, students are alleged to have set up a website called “davenightisgay” that asked participants to write what they thought of Dave Knight; students posted hundreds of anonymous abusive messages on the site, and the seventeen-year-old student’s family brought a lawsuit against the school board, administration, and the alleged ringleaders. In 2007, nineteen students at Robert Feehan Hall Catholic School in Caledon, East Ontario were suspended after posting sexually explicit, derogatory, and demeaning remarks about their principal. The school took the position that these students’ actions violated the school’s “Code of Conduct.”

Often, I will hear school officials, parents, and even students state that if the cyberbullying does not take place on school grounds, or if it takes place outside of the school’s jurisdiction, then the school has no part to play in dealing with the issue. To put it simply, parents, students, and even some teachers believe that schools do not have the right to intervene when the cyberbullying takes place on a home computer or cell phone off school property. Canadian jurisprudence cannot be any clearer on this issue. In her excellent book, “Confronting Cyber-Bullying,” Canadian internet legal expert, Dr. Shaheen Shariff states:

“If there is a nexus (connection) to the school (peers, teacher, school property), then there is an absolute right to intervene.”

Like it or not, teachers, parents, and students need to understand that the learning environment in today’s wired world is no longer restricted to the school. The Canadian courts have held that a school has the right to impose school discipline for conduct that occurs off school property. When a student turns to bullying behaviour, there exists a legal responsibility under Common Law, Statutory duties (School Act, school’s Code of Conduct, Human Rights Code, Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms) as well as the Criminal Code for the school to respond, especially where there is a direct nexus to the school. For schools not to take action when there is a clear nexus, it places them in a possible position to be held liable in an actionable claim for negligence if they do not act quickly to protect student victims of cyberbullying. Canadian law places on teachers a duty of care that is known as “in loco parentis.” What this means is that a teacher has a “duty of care” to the student under their supervision as if they were standing in the place of that student’s parent. It is because of this that teachers should be cognizant of the fact that one clearly established Canadian legal jurisprudence is the legal responsibility of educators to ensure that the school does not create a hostile, “deliberately dangerous,” or “poisoned” environment which prevents a conducive learning environment for a student.

Some Canadian court cases that support the fact that school boards and employees (teachers and principals) are held to a higher standard of care include:

Meyers v. Peel County Board of Education (1981), 123 S.C.R (3d) 1, “In order to teach, school officials must provide an atmosphere that encourages learning”

R v. M.R.M., (1998) 3 S.C.R. 393 at para. 35 “ A school board has a duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons served by it”

Each cyberbullying incident should be based on its individual facts and circumstances; to impose school discipline, there must be sufficient evidence, after a full and thorough investigation, that the online threat or intimidation was initiated by a particular identifiable student.

It is important to note that the courts in Canada have voiced their serious concern about the implications of bullying and intimidation in our schools. The courts have indicated that given the number of bullying cases, a strong message needs to be sent to the community that this type of behaviour will not be condoned. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that a threat (like cyberbullying) is a “tool of intimidation” which is designed to instill a sense of fear in its target. The court has asserted that the aim and purpose of the Criminal Code is to protect citizens against such fear and intimidation.

To quote Dr. Shaheen Shariff:

“Failure to supervise (protect) students properly can result in an actionable tort of negligence (unintentional tort). The onus is on the student who brings the claim, for example, as a victim of bullying or cyberbullying, to establish for criteria:

1) That there was a duty of care,

2) That the plaintiff experiences a tangible injury (psychological injury is harder to establish than physical injury),

3) That the injury was foreseeable by the supervisor and could have been prevented, and,

4) That the injury was caused by the actions or omissions of the supervisor

Hence in cases of peer-to-peer cyberbullying, a victim might report the bullying to the school several times, and the teachers may waive it off as nothing serious or tell the student the problem is a parental responsibility.”

According to the Canadian law firm “Evans and Philips,” in order for an actionable tort or negligence to be brought against a school there has to be:

  • A nexus between the school’s conduct and the student’s injury
  • A breach of a legal duty was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  • School officials must have been found to have acted with deliberate indifference
  • School engaged in intentional or reckless conduct which shocks the conscience

Evans and Philips further state:

  • Schools will not be liable for an unforeseeable event or for unforeseeable intervening events.
  • Boards can be liable in negligence through vicarious liability.
  • School officials must have been found to have acted with deliberate indifference, and
  • Schools are not required to constantly supervise students.

How Can Principals and Teachers Play A Part:

Knowing that there are criminal, civil, and human right consequences for not acting when a student discloses that they are being targeted by others in the school, what can principals and teachers do to protect the child and shield themselves, the school, and the school board from criminal and civil consequences?

  1. Ensure that the school has policy and a code of conduct in place that speaks to these issues which clearly mentions threats, intimidation, and harassment via mobile and wireless internet technologies. Within the policy, there should be clear consequences outlined for failure to comply with the school policy or Code of Conduct. Some consideration should also be given to having both student and parent sign the Code of Conduct. It is crucial for schools to establish and maintain a school climate of respect and integrity where any violation of the Code of Conduct will result in informal or formal sanctions.
  2. Educate students, parents, and teachers about the seriousness of cyberbullying.
  3. Where a school administrator or teacher is informed about an incident of cyberbullying involving a student, early intervention is a must.
  4. Conduct a thorough investigation process which should include:
  • Try to get as many details about the incident as possible.
  • Does the student have any fear about coming to school?
  • Asking the student to prepare a written statement of the event.
  • What kind of cyberbullying took place?
  • Obtain copies of all relevant e-mails and/or the name of the chat room and date and time and description of the chat, including full headers.
  • Explore the identity of the alleged cyberbully.
  • What was the background or history of the event that led to the cyberbullying if any?
  • Is it an isolated incident or an ongoing situation?
  • Does the student know or suspect that there are other victims?
  • Interview any witnesses to the incident or other students copied on emails to texts.
  • Depending on the type of cyberbullying, interview the student responsible.
  • If the cyberbullying involved threatens to cause bodily harm or other types of serious threats, connect with the police and have them get involved.
  • Meet with the student victim and their parents to outline what you have done and what their expectation may be to deal with the incident.

5. Think about having the school register with “Stop A Bully” type of reporting program.

At the conclusion of the above-noted investigation in step 4, the school principal must now come to a conclusion about what actually occurred and who was at fault. If the cyberbullying took place off of school property, then the principal must assess whether there is a sufficient nexus or link to the school to impose school discipline if needed.

Remember, principals and teachers have a legal duty, to the extent possible, to take prompt, timely, and reasonable action to deal with the issue of cyberbullying when it negatively affects a student’s learning environment. Responding quickly and effectively to allegations of cyberbullying will serve to reduce a teacher’s, school’s, and school board’s legal liability and assist in the creation of a safe learning and teaching environment for all students.

Ultimately, taking action criminally, civilly, or via human rights should only be considered in the most extreme cases, given the associated consequences that can take place. First and foremost, we believe that our youth should be made aware that:

  • Cyberbullying can have criminal consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • Cyberbullying can have civil consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • Cyberbullying can have human rights consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • There is a difference between free speech, as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights, and defamation as it pertains to libel and slander.
  • Schools can take action specific to cyberbullying if they can draw a nexus to the school and explain to them what those nexuses are.

We also believe that consequences to actions, when it comes to cyberbullying, should be incremental in nature (depending upon the nature of the cyberbullying) ranging from calling parents, counseling, expressions of condemnation, behavioural contracts, detention, suspension, change of school placement, expulsion, and in some extreme cases, even criminal charges. As Abraham Maslow stated, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In our opinion, criminal, civil, and human rights actions are a hammer and as stated earlier, should only be used in extreme circumstances.

Another avenue that I have seen used for low-level first-time cyberbullies is something called “Restorative Justice;” this is where the peer aggressor faces their intended victim outside the court process with a trained Restorative Justice facilitator. We have seen some amazing positive results take place in these sessions, which ultimately offers closure to the victim. The benefit to Restorative Justice is that it becomes an “educational” option, that can be used as a teaching method to help peer aggressors realize the impact of their online statements.

We also highly recommend that all teachers, principals, PAC’s, and school board trustees read Dr. Shaheen Shariff’s book, “Confronting Cyberbullying: What Schools Need to Know to Control Misconduct and Avoid Legal Consequences.”

We believe that changing a school’s culture and promoting students to become “up-standers” rather “by-standers,” specific to the peer policing of this issue, can help drive change when it comes to overcoming this challenge. In fact, research here in Canada by academic researchers at PrevNet has found that peer intervention of a friend being targeted usually stops the bullying behaviour in most circumstances very quickly. However, for this to be an effective strategy, a school needs buy-in from both the students and teachers.

Ultimately, remember that although schools do have a part to play when it comes to dealing with cyberbullying/digital peer aggression, as parents, we also have an important part to play as well. The causes of cyberbullying/digital peer aggression are multifactorial, so, too, are the ways that “we” (schools, families, law enforcement) go about preventing and dealing with the issue.

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