Cyberbullying Laws vs. the First Amendment: Legal Questions

By Greg Howard – March 25, 2013

Can cyberbullying laws stand up to First Amendment court challenges? Do school leaders have the authority to police off-campus cyberbullying?According to a recent report in the Tampa Bay Times, Florida legislators are seeking to give school leaders the authority to police incidents of cyberbullying that take place off campus. Not everyone is comfortable with the amendments being pushed by legislators, however.

Despite dramatic incidents of cyberbullying that have shocked Floridians in recent months – such as the suicide of a cyberbullied Tampa Bay teenager – some are simply not comfortable with the idea of educators pursuing off-campus abuse.

Some people are questioning the legal authority that school administrators have to punish students for bullying incidents that don’t take place on school property. Others question the legality of off-campus bully policing from the perspective of free speech.

These concerns raise an interesting question. Even if Florida legislators amended state law so educators could punish students for off-campus cyberbullying incidents, would such a law stand up to a First Amendment challenge?

Looking at past legal decisions, the answer to this question is unclear. One critic quoted in the Tampa Bay Times article noted that no Supreme Court decision has expressly given school administrators the authority to go after students for bad behavior off campus.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court has given educators the authority to restrict student speech in certain scenarios. The court’s decision in the 2007 Morse v. Frederick case is an example of this. If educators can restrict student speech at off-campus events, as justices said they could in Morse v. Frederick, could they also pursue students for inappropriate speech in an online forum?

For now, it seems that Floridians can agree on just one thing: something must be done to stop cyberbullying in schools. Unfortunately, it could take years before legislators and the courts have clarified the legal authority of school leaders to police cyberbullying.

While school leaders in Florida and other states wait on these decisions, we urge them to take a look at anonymous bully reporting. Anonymous reporting programs can help troubled students come forward and report bullying and cyberbullying without fear of further abuse from their classmates. Even if educators don’t have the legal authority to punish students for off-campus behavior, they can still address the needs of those being targeted for abuse.

Texting Trends: Students More Likely to Text than Talk

By Paul Langhorst – March 20, 2013

According to data published by Nielsen Mobile in December 2011, the average number of monthly texts for 13-17 year-olds is nearly five times that of voice calls.

Teen Texting Trends

Let’s take a look at why this is happening and examine the implications it has for student reporting of bullying and other issues.

Students Live on Their Mobile Phones

In the old days (5 years ago!), kids lived on PCs, often spending hours at a time instant messaging, chatting with friends (or even strangers) online. Today, the PC has been replaced with smartphones. The latest devices allow students to text, chat, and post 24/7 directly to each other and through many other via social media sites and programs.

These days, teens are so connected to their mobile devices they have become part of their person and personality. Teens, especially girls, personalize their phones with beads, colorful cases, and designs. They often evaluate each other by the type of device they carry: Droid vs. iPhone, smartphone vs. feature phone. Try to take one away and you are in trouble! Case in point: in 2011, a man was shot in the head with a bow and arrow by his 11-year old daughter after he had taken her phone away! Besides that extreme example, serious studies have shown that teens consider technology to be an essential part of their lives. For example, 53 percent of young people surveyed for a 2011 study by globally-known marketing agency McCann Worldgroup said they would rather give up their sense of smell than give up the technology they utilize.

Implications for School Hotlines and Anonymous Reporting

The bottom line is that if your school is going to offer an anonymous reporting solution or school hotline, it had better include the means for students to text in reports. The likelihood of students texting in important reports or tips is far greater than them walking through the front door of the principal’s office to do the same, especially when the report may be very personal or embarrassing. In a perfect world, every report would be made face to face, and we encourage that here at the CyberBully Hotline. However, the reality is that some things are so troubling or personal that fear, shame, or embarrassment will prevent a student from coming forward. In those cases, an anonymous school hotline is the perfect solution.

Of course, students must realize that their school hotline exists before they will take advantage of it. This is where a school’s ongoing promotion effort behind their school hotline pays off. Schools must diligently promote their hotlines, in the halls, online, in class, in assemblies, to parents, on the bus, and anywhere students my congregate. Do so and you will have success with your school hotline.

Learn More about Anonymous Reporting and School Hotlines

If you’re thinking of implementing an anonymous reporting program at your school, let us help you understand the available options. Click here to contact us for more info, or view a free webinar on anonymous reporting here.

School Violence Prevention: Lessons From The Front Lines

By Greg Howard – March 8, 2013

School Violence Prevention

Dr. Scott Poland was the guest speaker for our recent school violence prevention webinar.

Something very important is missing from the current debate over school safety procedures.

Since the Sandy Hook school shooting took place weeks ago, people have been arguing over the validity of various lockdown policies and school emergency response guidelines.  However, there has been little discussion about how to prevent school violence from occurring.

The lack of public discussion on violence prevention is an oversight that needs to be addressed.  That’s why we brought in Dr. Scott Poland, a psychologist with significant school safety credentials, for one of our recent professional development webinars.  A recording of this webinar is now available for viewing; click here to watch it.

In our webinar, Dr. Poland stressed the importance of a balanced approach to school safety.  He supports the use of what he calls “hardware measures” – things such as surveillance cameras, school resource officers, and ID badges – in the fight against safety threats.  But Dr. Poland also believes that attention to student mental health, social relationships, and school culture is essential.

We believe that every school administrator needs to hear Dr. Poland’s ideas on how to prevent school violence.  Dr. Poland’s presentation offers practical advice on topics such as:

• Forming a safety task force
• Enhancing security in school buildings
• Encouraging students to report threats
• Preparing for lockdown events

In addition, Dr. Poland’s presentation goes beyond the usual school safety talk to focus on the psychological side of school safety.  The mental health topics he discusses include:

• Building relationships between students and administrators
• Addressing parental involvement issues
• Identifying students who could pose safety threats

Dr. Poland’s unique presentation is a positive addition to the debate over school safety procedures.  Most discussions on school safety these days seem to center on the most controversial safety procedures, such as realistic lockdown drills and active shooter responses.  We believe that Dr. Poland’s argument in favor of a balanced approach to violence prevention will be valuable to school administrators at all levels.

Please click here to view a recording of the webinar.

Free School Bullying and Violence Prevention Resources

By Greg Howard – March 7, 2013

Free School Bullying and Violence Prevention ResourcesBullying and violence prevention are hot topics among school leaders these days. Thanks to the many inquiries we receive, we know that growing numbers of educational professionals are recognizing these problems and looking for help. That’s why the CyberBully Hotline team, a division of school communications leader SchoolReach, provides a regular series of free webinars and special reports on bully reporting and violence prevention.

The professional development resources we produce address the topics that school leaders are most concerned about – bullying, cyberbullying, violence, self-injury, and so forth. We urge you to take advantage look at these free, robust resources if you haven’t already. These resources are available to all of our website visitors.

Here’s a brief overview of the topics we regularly provide information on:

  • Bullying – School bullying is such a multifaceted topic. It happens in class, on the bus, online and elsewhere. To help administrators confront bullying in their schools, we provide content from school bullying experts on all different types of bullying – cyberbullying, girl bullying, school bus bullying, and more.
  • Youth Issues – Many young people are overwhelmed with the stresses of life and school. Sadly, some turn to cutting and self-injury to deal with pain, some turn to suicide, and still others turn to violence. We work with psychologists and expert counselors to provide timely information on these issues.
  • Anonymous Reporting – There are many ways to approach bully and violence prevention. Anonymous reporting can be used as a primary tool to address these concerns, or it can work in concert with behavioral and character education programs to reduce bullying and school violence. Whatever the method of implementation, our expert-authored webinars and white papers on anonymous reporting provide school leaders with all the information they need on the subject.
  • School Crisis Planning – Even with the best bully prevention programs in place, some students will decide to address their problems with violence. To help school administrators be ready for anything, we regularly work with school safety professionals to provide information on school emergency response planning, active shooter and other lockdown events, and more.

The feedback we get on our professional development resources is overwhelmingly positive. We regularly see near-100% satisfaction scores from surveyed attendees of our webinars, and our white papers and PDF guides have been downloaded by thousands of school leaders. Moreover, since these resources are free, you have nothing to lose by giving them a try. If you haven’t viewed our professional development content lately, we invite you to take a look at it right now.

Our Resource Center is packed with valuable video resources, links to upcoming webinars, case studies and white papers, and more. Our social media profiles also feature valuable content. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for interesting infographics and links to newly-available professional development resources.

Bullying and Suicide Prevention Bus Tours North America

By Greg Howard – February 4, 2013

Born This Way BusDepending on your perspective, her music and personal style may fill you with excitement or make you roll your eyes. No one, it seems, has a middle-of-the-road opinion about pop music superstar Lady Gaga. However, we would argue that everyone can find value in Lady Gaga’s work to encourage young people. The pop superstar’s current North American tour recently rolled through our community, and when it did, the work of her non-profit Born This Way Foundation was on display in a very visible and unique way.

At every stop on Lady Gaga’s tour, concertgoers and non-concertgoers alike can step aboard the Born This Way Bus and get connected with a variety of resources. The bus brings a slate of anti-bullying, suicide prevention, counseling, and leadership programming aimed at young people ages 13 to 25 to each city on the tour. As an extension of the Born This Way Foundation, which has supported anti-bullying initiatives since its inception, the bus hopes to support young people who are attacked for being different.

The Born This Way Bus Tour is supported by a number of leading institutions, including the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Council for Behavioral Health, the MacArthur Foundation, and many more. The most interesting aspect of the bus tour, however, may be the Born This Way Foundation’s efforts to connect bus visitors in each city with local resources. Young people in need can talk privately with someone about their concerns, and information on local mental health organizations and volunteer groups is provided. For example, while the bus was here in St. Louis, bus organizers helped connect young people in need with the locally-based Megan Meier Foundation.

Here at the CyberBully Hotline, we’re impressed by how Lady Gaga’s foundation carries out its stated mission to “build a kinder, braver world.” Lady Gaga is a tireless anti-bullying advocate, and the Born This Way Bus is a prime example of how she is using her platform to support young people dealing with bullying and other concerns.

Like Lady Gaga, our goal is to help bring students who are struggling out of the shadows of their school communities. Our methods of achieving this goal are very different, but our objective is the same: empower troubled young people and assist them in getting the help that they need. Hopefully, our collective efforts to address bullying, suicide, and other tough issues will succeed at giving young people the kinder, braver world that they deserve.

School administrators can find bullying and suicide prevention resources in our Resource Center.

Current Bullying Statistics: Using Infographics to Tell the Story

Bullying Statistics and Infographics
Bullying statistics seem to get more and more disturbing as the years go by. Every few weeks, a new study on bullying gets covered in the national press, and most studies have bad news to offer. What’s sad is that the numbers in each individual study shock us—until the next dramatic news story grabs our attention and causes us to forget. Here at the CyberBully Hotline, we’ve decided to give people a second look at some of these troubling statistics by presenting them in visually interesting ways.

If you view the CyberBully Hotline Facebook page, you’ll be able to find several infographics on bullying. (If you can’t see them in the page timeline, view the photo albums.) Each bullying infographic takes statistics from widely-covered studies on bullying and tries to present the numbers in a unique way.

For a sample of our work, look at this graphic. Even if you’d seen press coverage on the studies that the infographic references, you may have quickly forgotten the mentioned statistics. Our infographic is designed to highlight the numbers and show you just how important they are.

Since we encourage schools to use the CyberBully Hotline to address problems other than bullying, such as drug abuse and sexting, we have produced Infographics on those kinds of issues as well. Take this graphic, for instance. We’ll bet you didn’t realize that so many students were abusing drugs during the school day.

While the statistics on bullying and other concerns can be very disheartening, we’re not discouraged. It’s because of statistics like this that we get out of bed every morning and get to work. Together with the schools and districts we work with, we hope that we can make a dent in these numbers and address the struggles that young people are facing today.

Please keep up with us by liking the CyberBully Hotline Facebook page. There, you’ll find more infographics, links to bullying prevention resources, info on our free professional development material for school leaders, and much more.

Words Can Hurt: Celebrating No Name-Calling Week

By Greg Howard – January 23, 2013

No Name-Calling Week 2013Cyberbullying—a form of bullying driven by hurtful words—is making the old “sticks and stones” nursery rhyme look outdated. Words, in fact, can and do hurt, and that’s why No Name-Calling Week is so important.

No Name-Calling Week brings attention to the problem of name-calling in schools. Schools participating in No Name-Calling Week engage in educational activities to help students understand how cruel words affects others.

We’d like to recognize No Name-Calling Week by providing an example of how words can devastate someone’s life. In December 2012, Florida teenager Jessica Laney took her life after receiving hurtful messages on a popular question-and-answer website.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, people sent messages to Jessica, “a beautiful, slender…soccer player,” that called her “fat.” Others said she was “mean,” and still others claimed that “no one liked her.”

One person wrote, “nobody even cares about you.”

Some people even instructed Jessica to take her life.

“Die,” said one person.

“can you just kill yourself already” was the comment of another.

Apparently, Jessica had received these kinds of messages for months before her death. The taunts may not have been the sole factor in Jessica’s suicide, but considering the severity of the insults and the amount of time involved, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that they played an important role.

This sad story is proof positive that words can and do hurt. By all accounts, Jessica was an outwardly-happy teenager with a bright future ahead of her. However, she was clearly affected by the relentless name-calling—and perhaps driven over the edge because of this bad behavior.

Please take a moment to think about name-calling in your school this week. Name-calling may seem like an intractable, “kids will be kids” kind of problem, but the loss of students like Jessica Laney makes it clear that name-calling awareness and education efforts are necessary and important.

We encourage you to visit the No Name-Calling Week website at nonamecallingweek.org, which offers a wide variety of downloadable educational resources for students in all grades. Also, we encourage you to take advantage of our resources on anonymous reporting. When students have the option of anonymously reporting name-calling and other forms of bullying, they may come forward and reach out for help when they need it most.

It’s Okay to Tip! Teaching Students about Anonymous Reporting

Encourage students to make an anonymous tip about any problem.When we talk about the CyberBully Hotline, one thing we often tell school leaders is that they can’t address the problems they don’t know about. To us, this is more than just a cleverly-worded statement. We believe that school leaders must keep this idea in mind when installing any anonymous reporting program in their school or district.

While anonymous reporting programs can help schools address bullying, violence, and other tough issues, they work only if students buy in to the program. Students must believe that it is okay to tip before they will feel comfortable providing you with insight into their problems.

How do you encourage students to make reports? Here are five suggestions:

  • Ask students to tip—often! Let’s face it: attention spans can be short, and life moves fast. Without regular reminders about the program, students may forget about it. Periodically remind your students about your anonymous reporting program, and do so in every manner that you can—through morning and afternoon announcements, the student newspaper, teachers mentioning the program in class, and so on. You may also want to invite your students to tell you how they want to be reminded! Soliciting promotional ideas from students, and even having them come up with their own promotions, can help encourage participation and engagement with the program.
  • Communicate all the details. Some kids may doubt that reports are truly anonymous, or hesitate to provide tips out of fear that their peers will somehow find out. To overcome this resistance, give your students all the details about your program. Explain who sees the reports, how the information will be used to address problems, and what systems are in place to keep identities anonymous and information confidential. Also, candidly answer any questions about the program that may arise. Showing students that your program is well-constructed, thorough, and well-managed will help build confidence and trust.
  • Help them envision the consequences—good and bad. Peer pressure can work against a young person who wants to make an anonymous report. Fear of being perceived as a “snitch” or a “tattletale” will keep many from reporting. Students may also fail to report because they feel silly or awkward. For example, a student may be hesitant to make a report on a classmate who said they were “just joking” about blowing up the school; they may fear that administrators will be annoyed or see such a report as a waste of time. Tell students that making an anonymous report can help relieve their problems, while failing to report might make their problems worse or hurt others.
  • Remind them that you’re never too busy to help. Students may not have the self-esteem to believe that their problems are worth anyone’s time, or they may feel guilty about asking school leaders to make time for their concerns. Remind students that you will address all reports and tell students that you treat every report as important.
  • Encourage them to trust their feelings. A student may feel uncomfortable about the behavior of a peer or a school official but decide their concerns aren’t big enough or bad enough to report. For instance, a student may feel disturbed by a violent drawing that a socially-awkward classmate has created, but after seeing the drawing, they might deal with the discomfort by telling themselves that the student probably isn’t a threat. Alternatively, a student may receive an unwanted social advance from a classmate or school official, but then afterwards tell themselves that their reaction was somehow wrong. Tell students that if they are feeling weird, uncomfortable, or concerned about something, they should make a report. Remind students that it’s better to be safe than sorry, and invite them to make tips on all situations where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Do you have ideas on how to encourage students to provide tips? We’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!

Promoting an Anonymous Reporting Program: Building Awareness

Bayless School District superintendent Ron Tucker posts a sticker on one of his district's school buses to promote the CyberBully Hotline program to students.

Bayless School District superintendent Ron Tucker posts a sticker on one of his district's school buses to promote the CyberBully Hotline program to students.

Promotion is one of the most important aspects of implementation when it comes to anonymous reporting programs. Schools must continually make sure that students and parents know about their program. Two important methods of accomplishing this goal are to use awareness materials in the places where students might experience bullying and to use kickoff meetings to introduce the program.

Awareness materials are essential in helping people understand, remember, and utilize an anonymous reporting program. Since we introduced the CyberBully Hotline program, we’ve provided schools with customized promotional posters to use in high-traffic areas of a school, wallet cards, and more. We also partner with schools to provide them with other awareness materials that they may need.

Our partnership with the Bayless School District in St. Louis is a perfect example of how we’ve worked with a school district to create new awareness materials. As we wrote about in our Hardin, TX and Wentzville, MO case studies, the CyberBully Hotline has been successfully used by several schools to address school bus bullying. Our friends at the Bayless School District were aware that bullying could happen on the bus and wanted on-bus materials to promote the CyberBully Hotline program. To help them, we created some customized stickers that could be posted on the interior of each bus.

As you can see in the picture, Bayless superintendent Ron Tucker decided to post stickers in the middle of each bus, where they could be easily seen by students.

Mr. Tucker told us that parents want to know that school leaders are doing something to address bullying. “Parents like the fact that we’re making it easy for their kids to report things,” Mr. Tucker said of the CyberBully Hotline.

Another important part of building awareness is to use kickoff meetings to introduce the program. Good kickoff meetings give parents and students all the details about how an anonymous program works and encourages both to make reports about any concern.

Again, our friends at the Bayless School District are thought leaders in this regard. Mr. Tucker told us that his district was about to launch an Olweus program to assist with bullying prevention. To let parents know about both the Olweus program and the CyberBully Hotline program, the district invited parents to attend a kickoff meeting to introduce both.

Considering that the CyberBully Hotline program integrates well with bullying prevention programs like Olweus, introducing both programs in the same kickoff meeting was a good decision.

Besides awareness materials and kickoff meetings, there are many ways to promote an anonymous reporting program. Our free upcoming webinar on implementing anonymous reporting programs is designed to provide school administrators with best practice guidelines on how to install, promote, and manage an anonymous reporting program. Click here to register for your free seat.

Teen Cutting and Self-Injury Prank: What Adults Need To Know

By Greg Howard – January 9, 2013

Internet photo of teen singer Justin Bieber.

Teen singer Justin Bieber.

As a subject of discussion, teen cutting and self-injury is no laughing matter. That’s why a recent internet prank was so appalling, and why school counselors and administrators should take note of it.

The bizarre story began with the recent release of pictures showing teen singer Justin Bieber apparently smoking marijuana. In response, someone left an anonymous posting on an infamous message board website that put the aforementioned prank into motion.

“Lets start a cut yourself for bieber campaign,” the person wrote. “Tweet a bunch of pics of people cutting themselves and claim we did it because bieber was smoking weed. See if we can get some little girls to cut themselves.”

Apparently, the idea was to encourage Bieber fans to self-injure as a means of showing the singer how disappointed they were about his alleged marijuana use.

The posting was eventually deleted, but not before pranksters took to Twitter and started posting graphic images depicting cut flesh. Many photos were thought to be fake, but some are feared to be real images from young Bieber fans responding to the prank. Furthermore, because of the prank, the Twitter hashtag #cut4bieber became the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. According to social analytics site Topsy, the hashtag was used almost 30,000 times in the span of twelve hours.

Cutting and self-injury behaviors are common among teens who are struggling with emotional or mental distress. Such behaviors are often not life-threatening, as most teens do not intend to take their lives when they self-injure; many teens use cutting and other forms of self-harm as a means of dealing with anxiety or bad feelings. However, if taken too far, self-injury can result in hospitalization or death.

With this in mind, school administrators and counselors should reflect on their own efforts to prevent incidents of self-harm. As this prank demonstrates, you can’t possibly predict the events that may trigger a teen to self-injure. Moreover, since self-injury can take place on campus, it’s an issue that school leaders must be comfortable addressing.

Our upcoming webinar on teen cutting and self-injury behaviors will help school leaders understand the phenomenon of self-harm among young people. We encourage all school administrators who need the latest information on cutting and self-injury to attend.

Click here to sign up for the webinar.