Addressing Cyberbullying in Higher Education

While some may think that students stop bullying when they graduate from high school, recent news stories have proved otherwise. Bullying behavior is not put away when students receive their high school diplomas — often the behavior continues on when these students enter higher education.

Cyberbullying, a recent trend with the increasing use of technology among students, is a pernicious form of harassment that can cause serious damage on college campuses. Websites like Juicy Campus and College ACB allow students to carry out bullying and harassment, as well as reach a larger group of students with nasty comments and pictures. It is often said that nothing on the Internet is private, and when students cyberbully their peers, they make that harassment a very public statement.

We discussed with David Tirella, a practicing trial attorney in Florida, adjunct professor at Stetson Law, and advocate for victims of bullying, how incidents of cyberbullying are handled on campus, what administrators can do to stop cyberbullying, and how media attention can affect awareness of the issue.

Tirella started off with a basic definition of bullying, which is chronic abuse. “It’s the systematic and chronic attempt to physically or emotionally or psychologically abuse, harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce,” he explained. An incident that happens once is not considered bullying.

Cyberbullying then involves any type of communication technology to assist in the bullying. “You’re just using a different weapon,” he said. “You’re not using a fist; you’re just using modern technology.” This technology includes pictures, e-mail, YouTube videos, phone messages, and texts.

When a student experiences cyberbullying, the incident is usually handled on campus through three steps. Often, the victim first reports the incident to an RA, professor, or other non-law enforcement person of authority on campus. From there, campus security or campus police are called in to report the cyberbullying. Depending on the allegations, Tirella explained, off-campus police are then brought in to deal with the matter. A victim whose private pictures end up shared across campus may only deal with campus police. A victim whose harassment includes rape would involve off-campus police.

There are ways for schools to help prevent incidents of cyberbullying. Tirella suggested formal and informal discussions and lectures “to try to make sure the students understand that number one, it is against the law; number two, it’s against school policy; and number three, that it’s against moral and human nature to be abusing kids — whether physically or cyberbullying.” Education will help students understand that the administration is clearly behind anti-bullying/anti-cyberbullying programs.

“When you think of a school, and you think of the administration, the first think that ought to pop in to your when is, ‘What is the school’s philosophy on cyberbullying?’” Tirella said. “It needs to come to mind immediately that they’re absolutely against it — they’re verbally against it; they’re in writing against it; they are very proactive; and they are going to do everything they can stomp it out.” Thinking of a school as proactive and offering consequences to cyberbullying means a student will probably be less inclined to try to harass fellow students.

Tirella said that the most important common thread among cyberbullying cases is what the school will allow to take place. “If everyone knows the school minimizes it or thinks it’s not a real issue, then they’re going to get away with it,” he explained. A good way for a school’s administration to be clear in their support for the victim is continuous education on the subject.

“They need to have every semester formal and informal lectures and discussion groups, and all types of individuals coming in” to educate students on what bullying is and how to report and who to report to if they are a victim. The school also needs to clearly explain consequences to their students. “The biggest threat is you expel them,” Tirella said. “If the student thinks they’re going to get expelled or prosecuted or sued civilly, it starts to get into [his or her] mind that this is not something you need to do.”

Cyberbullying is an incredibly important issue to Tirella. He explained, “This really is an epidemic… Cyberbullying is affecting our future with our children. It is a big deal — bigger that I thought it was when I got into it five years ago.”

Because of the importance of education about cyberbullying, Tirella said that media attention on cases of cyberbullying is a good idea. He stressed that the 48-hour news cycle may not do anyone favors, but stories throughout the year and CNN’s recent coverage including a town hall meeting, help bring awareness and importance to cyberbullying.

When students recognize and understand what constitutes cyberbullying and what its consequences can be, they may be more inclined to not participate and actually break the bullying cycle. And while recent incidents of cyberbullying have come to tragic ends, continuous education and discussion can help prevent future harassment.

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