Time and technology continually bring new opportunities and challenges to our society. The school-age experience today is different in many ways from that of the previous generations. The proliferation of e-mail, cell phones, Facebook and other social media tools has enabled kids to connect in ways never before conceived. Unfortunately, these technologies sometimes are being used to connect in harmful, hurtful ways.

Consider cyberbullying, which has emerged as one of the top problems for education institutions. Cyberbullying occurs when someone is threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another person over the Internet, cell phones or other electronic devices.

These acts fall under the umbrella of bullying, but are different in significant ways. Whereas bullying used to be limited to a physical location, usually occurring on campus during school hours or on a bus, cyberbullying can be constant, reaching the victim via ever-present computers and cell phones on a 24/7 basis: at home and at school. This type of bullying is unprecedented in its ability to reach dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, making it even more devastating to the victim.

Prevalence and consequences

Although cyberbullying is an online issue, it has become a real-world problem in schools from kindergarten all the way through higher education. Cyberbullying affects nearly one in four children. According to statistics reported in August 2010 by Healthline Networks (www.healthline.com/health-feature/cyberbullying), 42 percent of teenagers have been cyberbullied, 53 percent of kids admit to saying something hurtful online, and 58 percent of kids did not report an incidence of cyberbullying to an adult. The consequences of harassment range from devastating acts such as suicide and homicide, to embarrassment or distraction during school. In all cases, schools and students are affected negatively by this crime. For this reason, it is extremely important to establish a policy and protocols that the school community (from teachers to students) can follow.

By far, the worst thing administrators at K-12 schools and universities can do is ignore instances of cyberbullying and the subsequent fallout. Taking action is critical to protecting students, the community and the school’s environment and reputation. Some fundamental tips:

Be aware. The key to preventing and responding to cyberbullying in schools is, first, to be aware of it. School administrators, SROs and public-safety officers should be aware of trends and reports of hostile behavior at their schools and make it their business to stay on top of every incident. Schools can take several steps to increase their awareness of incidents. Establish an anonymous reporting channel. If students are able to share information in a way that they feel does not compromise their security or reputation, they are more likely to do so. Encouraging reporting and providing anonymity will increase the frequency of reports and quality of information.

Teachers and parents of K-12 students, or students’ professors and roommates at the college level also can be a valuable source of information. Although they may not be aware of specific incidents, they are likely to notice behavioral changes in victims. Students who suddenly are isolated, ostracized or withdrawn may be victims. Teachers, parents or friends of a student should report these red flags to administrators and security officers who, in turn, should further investigate, treating victims with respect and confidentiality. Administrators, school security officers and counselors are good resources that can assist in case management by providing specialized guidance and support.

Schools should maintain an open-door policy with students, teachers and parents, encouraging discussion and feedback on the matter in order to encourage the flow of information.

Create a zero-tolerance culture. A key step in preventing cyberbullying is creating a culture of respect and establishing a no-tolerance policy. It is important to teach students the consequences of cyberbullying. In a great number of cases, the students perpetrating these acts are not aware of the gravity of their crimes. These kids may be doing it in fun, to show off, or to look "cool" in front of their friends. Often, they do not consider or understand the consequences of their acts or realize that they may even be committing a crime. These students should be reminded of the severity of this activity and the potential consequences.

The majority of state laws that apply in these incidents look at the "behavior" and not the "label" of cyberbullying. The act of repetitive verbal or written communications with the intent to harass, intimidate, humiliate or otherwise harm another student is prosecutable as a misdemeanor under many state laws. Some states have set the precedent to prosecute cyberbullying if behavior results in death or attempted suicide. Once students realize that their "fun" can result in humiliation, devastation and even suicide, they may be less willing to commit acts of cyberbullying. In addition, if they realize the potential consequences, such as incarceration, they may think twice before doing it. Schools should develop educational programming to make these points, as well as openly communicate a zero-tolerance culture.

Students also can be their own greatest defense against cyberbullying by not tolerating it. By shunning bullies and supporting victims, students create a culture in which bullies are rejected and victims are supported.

Stay proactive.Although it can be difficult for school administrators and school resource officers (SROs) to successfully discipline students for cyberbullying that takes place off campus, they should work together with students, parents, staff and other outside resources to address cyberbullying. The legal challenges are obvious: the fact that bullying is taking place in cyberspace as opposed to a physical location on campus makes it difficult to assign jurisdiction. In addition, because much bullying is being done with words, there is potential for "freedom of speech" arguments to be made. Administrators should stay informed about state and federal laws surrounding cyberbullying, which have been changing because of the prevalence of the issue.

By working closely with law enforcement and communicating clear expectations with parents and students about the potential for swift disciplinary action for cyberbullies, administrators position themselves to take action and make an example of every case that does occur, deterring future activity.

Looking forward, schools should account for cyberbullying in their security response plans and even their educational curriculum. By taking steps to address the issue proactively, schools create a climate that fosters a safe, successful and productive learning environment.

Floreno serves as director of security operations and strategy for Wren, Jefferson City, Mo., providers of physical security solutions that create safe learning environments. he can be reached at jeff.floreno@wrensolutions.com.

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