Witnesses and all present members of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities unanimously expressed concern for the growing trend in “cyberbullying”. The testimony took place during a subcommittee hearing on June 24 titled “Ensuring Student Cyber Safety”, as part of ongoing discussions of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The term “cyberbullying” refers to any kind of bullying or harassment that takes place on the Internet, through social networking sites like Facebook, and through text messaging. With a Pew 2007 study reporting that 93% of teens aged 12-17 go online daily, 75% have a cell phone, and 73% use social networking sites, the danger of cyberbullying is an increasingly pressing issue.

In her opening remarks, Chairwoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) said that according to a February 2010 PEW report, 73% of wired American teens use social networking websites, and that daily text messaging has increased significantly in the past year and a half, from 38% in February 2008 to 54% in September 2009. She stressed that students cannot learn in environments that are unsafe due to cyberbullying from any forms of technology, and that the emotional and physical impacts of cyberbullying are so severe that we must swiftly address this issue. McCarthy concluded by urging strategic coordination between all interested parties, particularly the students.

Barbara-Jane Paris, principal of Canyon Vista Middle School in Austin, TX, and an incoming member of the NASSP board of directors, was the lone school-based witness and provided an invaluable perspective to the hearing of the effects of cyberbullying at school. As a high school principal five years ago, one of her students became suicidal due to cyberbullying, and Paris admits that at the time she felt powerless with no idea of how to address the issue. After much research she discovered Bully Policy USA, a watchdog organization that advocates on behalf of bullied children and reports on state antibullying laws, which provided her with strategies to combat cyberbullying at her school.

Paris also mentioned the research that came out of a report entitled The Principal’s Perspective: School Safety, Bullying, and Harassment that the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) published with NASSP’s collaboration in 2008. A survey from this report found that 49% of public school principals considered bullying, name calling, or harassment of students to be a serious problem at their school. Furthermore, 72% of principals estimated that students at their school engage in cyberbullying to some extent.

Two themes central to effectively addressing cyberbullying emerged during the hearing: awareness and collaboration. To raise awareness, renowned talk-show host Dr. Phil urged that parents close the “information gap” and learn more about their children’s use of the Internet and social networking sites in order to understand how to prevent cyberbullying. In response, Paris mentioned that she regularly holds “parent summits” at her school to educate parents on Internet safety issues, among other things. She also advocated that educators receive comprehensive professional development on how to ensure student safety while using technology as an educational tool. Dominique Napolitano, a rising high school senior and member of Girl Scouts’ Let Me Know program, which shares current issues facing teen girls online and tools to keep them safer online, noted that teenagers also need to become more aware of the harmful effects of cyberbullying as a prevention strategy since many do not fully realize the grave impact of this kind of bullying. Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and expert on cybercrime, announced that she is releasing a “Stop Cyberbullying” toolkit for parents and children this September that will be free and available for schools as a useful awareness tool.

Similarly, most witnesses noted collaboration among parents, students, educators, social and religious institutions, and the federal government as an essential component of cyberbullying prevention. Paris stressed that she and other school administrators cannot effectively ensure student cyber safety without the support of the federal government. Aftab and Dr. Phil urged parents to have an ongoing dialogue with their children about their Internet use and strategies to prevent either being the victim of cyberbullying or the actual perpetrator.

As a member of the National Safe Schools Partnership, NASSP has promoted federal policy recommendations to prevent bullying and harassment in our nation’s schools, which are embodied in the Safe Schools Improvement Act (H.R. 2262) and will hopefully be incorporated into a reauthorized ESEA. These recommendations propose that:

  1. Schools and districts have comprehensive and effective student conduct policies that include clear prohibitions regarding bullying and harassment
  2. Schools and districts focus on effective prevention strategies and professional development to assist school personnel address issues associated with bullying and harassment
  3. States and districts maintain and report data regarding incidents of bullying and harassment to inform the development of effective federal, state, and local policies that address these issues.

To view an archived webcast of the hearing, visit the NASSP homepage at www.nassp.org.

Comments are closed.