May 21, 2014 by

Student-Educator Cyberbullying: More Questions than Answers

EU cyberbyllyingBy Sarah McKibben

When teachers and administrators are harassed online by students or parents, navigating a response can be tricky. Middle school teacher Dave Villafana knows all too well that once the immediate fire is extinguished, it takes substantial effort to change attitudes about appropriate online behavior.

Villafana was interviewed for the May Education Update article, “Harassment Versus Free Speech: The Blurred Lines of Social Media.” In 2006, one of his students set up fake Myspace pages that contained offensive and phony conversations between Villafana and his assistant principal.

The perpetrator was “savvy,” says Villafana, lifting language from places where he’d been quoted to make the pages appear “authentic.” Although Villafana and his colleague immediately contacted Myspace to remove the pages and the school explained to students and parents that they were fake, the incident prompted the need for a more comprehensive intervention.

In the following bonus outtake, writer Glenn Cook reveals the additional measures Villafana and his district took to educate students about online civility—and why Villafana believes they’ve only scratched the surface.

After the incident, the district began working with Common Sense Media to provide monthly lessons on appropriate social media use for students in grades K–8. The program is designed to “open up the doors of communication if [students] are noticing anything we need to be aware of,” Villafana says.

“Kids tend to be quiet about things. As we look at the program and how we adapt it, we want to help kids feel like they can have a discussion about appropriate use and online bullying,” Villafana explained.

The district also invites motivational speakers to the schools two to three times a year. And in a twice-monthly program, 8th grade students introduce 6th graders to the campus and talk with them about issues such as bullying and appropriate social media use.

Although the programs have been beneficial and the incident has not been repeated, Villafana thinks there’s still work to be done in clearing the way for more authentic dialogue between students and staff. “[Even] with all of that in place, we’re not at the point where kids are coming to us and helping us to prevent it. I don’t know what answers are out there but I have a lot of questions.”

Villafana hopes schools will consider addressing online behavior in the earlier grades. “Middle school tends to be a place where meanness and harassment starts. We need to start reaching [students] at a younger [age], because some kids just feed on that vulnerability, and they feel empowered when they can make someone feel low.”

“There’s a great saying, ‘Hurt kids hurt kids,’” Villafana continued. “I don’t know how to stop the hurting but we’ve got to keep trying.”

For tips on how to prevent and respond to such incidences and to learn how Maryland Superintendent Joshua Starr turned cyberharassment into a “teachable moment” for his district, read “Harassment Versus Free Speech: The Blurred Lines of Social Media.”

Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of ASCD’s member newsletter, Education Update. Prior to joining ASCD, she was an editor for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Printing Industries of America, where she coauthored the Web-2-Print Primer.