Quite often when you investigate a cyberbullying or sexting incident, you will come to learn that the “offending” parties didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions or how what they did could have ever resulted in the trouble that they are now facing. Maybe they didn’t think that what they were doing was that big of a deal or perhaps they felt that no one else would ever find out about it. Sometimes they are genuinely shocked by the fallout. Well, they shouldn’t be. We need to be explicit with students about the possible repercussions associated with these behaviors, so that they are fully informed when making a decision about how they are interacting online.
Even though the vast majority of these kinds of incidents can and should be handled informally (e.g., by calling parents, counseling the bully and target, or expressing condemnation of the behavior), there may be occasions when a formal response from the school is warranted. This is particularly the case in incidents involving serious threats toward another student, if the target no longer feels safe coming to school, or if cyberbullying behaviors continue after informal attempts to stop it have failed. In these cases, detention, suspension, changes of placement, or even expulsion may be necessary. If these extreme measures are warranted, it is important that you clearly demonstrate the negative effect of the incident on the school or student(s) and present evidence that substantiates your disciplinary action.
You can also include an educational component in your response strategy, especially when dealing with first-time violators or those who engaged in relatively minor forms of technology misuse. For example, you could have the student write a paper on the effects of harassment or provide the student with a video camera and help him or her create a public service announcement about cyberbullying that can be used to educate the rest of the student body. Of course, you want to be careful not to bring undue negative attention to the students involved. To be sure, requiring students who were involved in a sexting incident to create a school-wide program about the topic might not be the best option (although it could be done anonymously). Your knowledge of the incident, the students involved, and the extent of awareness by the broader school population will help you to determine the best course of action.
Because every situation is different, you need to take the time to thoroughly investigate to determine the most appropriate response, taking into consideration everything that you know about the students involved and the circumstances surrounding the behaviors. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting and it is therefore best to have a variety of response strategies in your toolkit (more information here). But it is also important that students are made aware of the potential penalties. They need to be put on notice that any online behavior that substantially disrupts the learning environment at school, or that infringes on the rights of other students while they are at school, is subject to strict sanction. This should be made clear to them in the student handbook at the beginning of the school year, as well as through regular reminders throughout the year.
Having tough punishments on the books will have little deterrent effect, especially if students are unaware of them. Better to prevent students from misbehaving in the first place than to have to discipline them after the fact. And beyond school-based sanctions there are other collateral consequences associated with the misuse of technology, including threats to their reputation, employment marketability, and even possible legal penalties. So take the time to educate students about the behaviors you are trying to prevent ahead of time, which should include an honest discussion of the potential academic, social, and legal consequences.
Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time (more info here)