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In early July, an anonymous Instagram account was used to bully students at Whiteaker Middle School in the Salem-Keizer School District. The account was removed. But after the Statesman Journal reported on the incident, parents and teachers throughout the district came forward publicly, saying that incident was just one of many incidents of cyberbullying.
During the summer, most teachers and school administrators aren’t available to respond to reports of cyberbullying, Kelly Carlisle, the district’s assistant superintendent, told OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” Online bullying is often anonymous, so the school staff may not be able to find and punish the bully. However, Carlisle said discipline may not be the right approach anyway.
“Discipline by itself may just have a humiliating effect, and that humiliation may just accelerate their desire to continue the behavior,” Carlisle said.
About 30 percent of eighth-grade students reported having been bullied at school, according to the 2015 Oregon Healthy Teens survey. Haley Percell, a lawyer for the Oregon School Boards Association, says schools have a legal obligation to respond if the bullying has made its way into the school — and involves a protected class or sexual harassment. She advises administrators throughout the state on the legal implications of cyberbullying.
“What I see a lot of them doing is educating students, staff, community members about appropriate use of social media,” Percell said. “Making sure that students know that some of their actions could be criminal in nature, knowing that they could be expelled from school.”
Punishing bullies can be challenging for schools because of the potential to violate the bully’s free speech rights. Percell said some schools have been sued for punishing students for online comments. In one case, a student was suspended from school for three days for posting on Facebook that his teacher should be shot for giving him a “C” grade.
“His parents sued on his behalf, that our action violated his First Amendment right,” Percell said. “The judge agreed with him, and we had to take the discipline away and pay that student’s attorney fees.”
Educators are doing what they can, says Nancy Willard, founder of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, but she says cyberbullying can’t be stopped by adults.
“The challenge in this area is that adults are not in control,” Willard said. “They’re not in control in cyberspace, and they’re not in control at school by the time kids get into secondary education.”
She said some Whiteaker students probably reported the anonymous account to Instagram so the platform could take down the account. Instead of educators trying to teach students, Willard said they should focus on allowing students to teach other.
“This kind of hurtful behavior is not approved by students,” Willard said. “They think it’s approved. They think that’s the way to achieve social status, but the reality is the majority of students don’t like it.”