The untimely death of a South Hadley (Massachusetts) teenager has prompted concern throughout the Commonwealth about the tragic effects and consequences of school bullying. Since the news surfaced about this beautiful young woman’s suicide, parents, school administrators, legislators, and talk radio hosts have clamored for answers and have assigned blame. I have received several inquiries about what our district is doing to protect young people from bullying and what steps we are taking to eliminate it from our schools. One community member offered to send a large donation to help put programs and training in place. Needham Schools have practices and procedures in place to confront bullying. But one thing is certain: Schools can’t do this alone.
The playground bully has been around since there were school playgrounds; it is not news that some bigger and stronger kids may take advantage of their peers through the use of persistent threats, intimidation, hazing, and bullying. Each of us has probably either been the victim of a bully or witnessed an encounter—even among adults!
What is new, and in some ways more insidious, is the issue of cyberbullying. The National Crime Prevention Council describes cyberbullying this way: “Cyber bullying is similar to other types of bullying, except it takes place online and through text messages sent to cell phones. Cyber bullies can be classmates, online acquaintances, and even anonymous users, but most often they do know their victims.”
Our young people can be vulnerable to a bully on the playground, classroom, or bus, but cyberbullying silently confronts children and teen-agers at home, where kids are supposed to feel safe. The widespread use of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other online social networking sites makes the bullying possibilities almost endless. Additionally, electronic bullying can often remain hidden to parents, teachers, and other caring adults who may not know that a child is being harassed in the online environment. Kids (and, let’s be fair, adults) will write, record, and publish things online they would never say in a personal encounter with a peer. And the videos, text messages, photos, and email diatribes can even be more excruciating than the schoolyard bully’s punches and putdowns: In the electronic age, the hurtful message is distributed instantly to a large audience, exacerbating and magnifying the shame, grief, and pain of the bully’s victim.
Most of the cyberbullying occurs at home and away from the school setting, which makes it difficult for school administrators to monitor and address. I do not believe that school administrators should assume responsibility for addressing online bullying that occurs away from school. Unfortunately, in the online environment, the “he said-she said” behavior that is standard teen drama can quickly spiral out of control and become cruel and bullying behavior. Household and neighborhood problems between and among young people need to be resolved by parents, older family members, and, if necessary, the police. The school principal simply cannot and should not referee a child’s online behavior in the family livingroom.
Sometimes, though, what happens on the walk home from school or even a late night Facebook posting can result in a fight, personal injury, or serious disruption on campus that requires a swift and unambiguous response from the school administration. In these cases, schools need to have clear, consistent, and tough reactions to those students who bully others in person at school or whose online behavior outside of the schoolhouse affects the safe operation of the school community. All students have the right to feel safe and secure on the bus, in their classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria or locker-room, and on the playing field. School principals can’t monitor Facebook, but they can take aggressive action if cyberbullying affects the safe and orderly operation of the school.
The Needham Public Schools has invested significant energy and resources into the instruction of social and emotional skills for all children. Embedded in our curriculum and programs are messages of respect, integrity, tolerance, and care. We simply expect young people to treat one another in a way that is consistent with our core values of Scholarship, Citizenship, Community, and Personal Growth. We believe young people want to do the right thing and, mostly, their behavior demonstrates that core belief.
But we will continue to be alert and vigilant. Our school principals and staff work closely with students and families to ensure safe and secure learning environments. And the Needham School Committee is developing a bullying policy to complement the principals’ work and to ensure that we have the procedures, practices, and programs in place to address bullying behavior. We can’t guarantee a student will not be bullied while in school; but we can assure a swift and immediate response to both the schoolyard bully and the cyberbully whose online behavior at home in the evening disrupts the classroom during the day.