Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response

Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response Cyberbullying Research Center image 2

A new video has surfaced showing a bullying incident in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The video shows 14-year-old high school freshman Kobe Nelson being pushed around by a classmate while a throng of onlookers heckle and encourage the two to fight. Several of the students can be seen recording the situation on their cell phones. It appears from the video that Kobe is simply trying to walk away, but the aggressor keeps pulling him back into the fray. Eventually Kobe is able to escape, but is later contacted by a police officer assigned to the school who inquires about the fight. He was taken to the office where he was informed that he was being suspended for two days for fighting. Presumably the other student involved was also suspended, but his sanction has not been discussed publicly.

There is sadly nothing all that special or unique about this kind of incident – fights happen in schools every day, and near-misses like this are without a doubt even more frequent. According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 12% of high school students had been involved in a fight at school in 2011. Overall, these numbers have been dropping since the mid-1990s, but still remain at levels of concern. There are no data available that quantifies the number of times students walk away, as Kobe did on that day.

Kobe protested his suspension, arguing that he didn’t do anything wrong. When his father, Tommy Purvis, learned about the video and watched it, it was clear that Kobe’s description of the incident was accurate – he didn’t do anything wrong. Mr. Purvis approached school officials with the video but they reportedly refused to watch it, saying that they already knew what had happened. The police officer assigned to the high school also apparently mocked Kobe, telling him that he should “bulk up” so he wouldn’t make for such an easy target. Perhaps this was an ill-conceived attempt by the officer to lighten things up. But flippant responses like this help explain why less than 30% of the students in our most recent survey (October, 2013) told an adult about their experience with bullying. Being dissatisfied with the school and law enforcement response, Mr. Purvis and his son went public with the incident by posting the story, and video, online.

The Power of Video Evidence

Video has always served as valuable evidence to enable investigators to see exactly the extent of one’s involvement in a criminal incident. Remember back in 2008 when several girls lured 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay into one of their homes for the purpose of beating her up? The motive for the assault seemed to have been linked to some trash-talking Victoria was doing on MySpace. The assault was premeditated for the purpose of teaching her a lesson and was deliberately perpetrated in front of several cell phone cameras so that the incident could be posted on MySpace and YouTube. Several girls were charged criminally and the chief offender, 17-year-old Brittini Hardcastle, served 15 days in jail. The assault was immortalized online and in a 2011 Lifetime movie. There are no shortage of similar squabbles that went viral. Publicity abounds when cruelty is captured in its raw and unedited form. Indeed, one wonders if Rodney King would be a household name today if not for the video that emerged of his beating.

With this in mind, should we encourage bystanders to record incidents of bullying when they witness it so that adults charged with investigating can see exactly what happened? We already encourage students to keep all evidence of cyberbullying, and so reminding and allowing them to document face-to-face incidents like this can help adults sort through the details of what happened so that offending parties can be held accountable. Of course, this could be abused. There is a big difference between the teen who gleefully records an incident for the purpose of later public posting and ridicule, and the teen who quietly gathers evidence to take to the authorities. The latter might be appropriate while the former most certainly is not (and may warrant punishment in its own right).

It is important to remember, too, that video recordings often only capture a snippet of a larger incident. In Kobe’s video, we see less than 90 seconds of the interaction and have no idea what Kobe might have said or done to possibly instigate the altercation. There are always multiple sides to any story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more details emerged in this case. That said, one can only examine the evidence that is available, and video should always be used in combination with eyewitness interviews to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.

I worry, however, that had it not been for the video evidence, Kobe would have had a harder time substantiating the facts of the incident. Sure, maybe a few of his friends would have stepped up and offered support for his version of the events, but no doubt other observers would have contradicted those and the school would have been forced to default to offsetting penalties (punishment for both). And what kind of message does that send?

With Cyberbullying, There Is Always Evidence

One of the defining characteristics of cyberbullying is that there is always evidence. Whether it is a text message, Facebook post, Instagram picture, tweet, or video, it is important to continually remind those who are being targeted to preserve that evidence. With face-to-face bullying it is often one person’s word against another. Digital evidence helps to clarify who said what and when.

I was talking with a school resource officer in Wisconsin last spring about an incident where a student came up to him after school and said she was receiving mean text messages. The officer asked the student to bring in a copy of the messages for him to review. The next day this student brought a printed-out copy of the messages, which included over two pages of content. The problem was that just about every other message had been blocked out with a black Sharpie. When the officer questioned the student about the redacted messages, the student responded “Well…those are my texts to her, and those aren’t important.”  Of course they are important! Adults who investigate bullying incidents need to be able to see all of the information surrounding the incident, so they can respond appropriately given all of the available facts.

School and law enforcement officials need to thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying so that those responsible can be properly disciplined. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. First of all, many law enforcement officers lack good training on how to handle bullying (especially cyberbullying). And even though school administrators are generally much better at handling these kinds of incidents, they are stretched so thin with declining budgets and increasing mandated responsibilities that they often do not have enough time to adequately investigate these reports. So they triage them as best they can, but sometimes mistakes are made. Ultimately, it is up to everyone who witnesses bullying incidents to step up and report what they saw so that the correct and appropriate action can be taken.


  1. I don’t know what to say, Justin. I’ve read the link and watched the video and I’m not impressed with how the ‘authorities’ responded to the incident.

    1) the deputy. Kobe’s complaint addresses the deputy’s insensitive approach to the situation. My interpretation of being told to “bulk up” isn’t as an attempt to lighten the mood but as a declaration of victim blaming. Kobe took it as an insult (as discussed in the video interview) and is complaining that the deputy isn’t professional enough to work at that school.

    2) the school officials. I don’t understand why they refused to review the video and suspend Kobe only to have the suspension reversed after the video was made public and public opinion weighed in on the verdict. It was mentioned that they already saw it but… like I said, I don’t know what to say. It feels like lazy administration to say, “If there was a fight, then obviously the participants must be suspended. Case closed.”

    3) In the video linked above at timestamp 20:26 the investigating interviewer says, “My concern, probably the same as yours, is how this will affect your image back at the school…” when discussing investigating further. Is that because bringing forward a complaint to authorities will label you as a “cry baby” amongst your peers?

    Maybe Kobe should have just slugged the kid and earned that suspension. At least he would have earned some school yard cred.

    But seriously: I’m proud that Kobe walked away from the physical confrontation.

  2. I agree, Tony. Regarding the deputy, yes, from what we know, it sounds like he needs to be reassigned. But we don’t know much so in my comments I was doing my best to give him the benefit of the doubt, all the while acknowledging that his comment was unprofessional and inappropriate. The school officials likely just wanted to move beyond the incident as quickly as possible and the default response was suspensions for all involved. The curse of the Zero Tolerance model. Regarding your suggestion that Kobe slug the kid – in an earlier draft of this post I included an anecdote dating back to my days playing youth hockey where I received a penalty for fighting, when I didn’t even do anything. So I wailed off and smacked the other kid on my way to the penalty box. The coach asked me what the heck I was doing and I told him that since I was getting the penalty anyway, I might as well have made it worth it. I removed that story from the post because I was afraid some might agree with the logic (and your point below). But you are right that students might eventually learn that they are going to get punished anyway, they might as well fight. Which, of course, would only make matters worse in the long run. All the more reason for schools to put in the time to get it right when doling out punishments.

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