The consequences of cyber-bullying can be severe. At a time when many young people struggle to cope with the pressures of adolescence, cyber-bullying can be responsible for negative effects on academic performance and self-confidence - and can sadly even lead to suicide. It is therefore a major safeguarding issue for schools.
What is cyber-bullying?
Cyber-bullying is defined as the use of the internet, mobile phones and social networking sites deliberately to upset someone else. All bullying must be addressed by schools as part of their overall behaviour and disciplinary strategy.
Schools may not know how to find out if cyber-bullying is taking place. However, it is possible to monitor the school's name across social media and online channels: Google tracks real-time content as well as blogs and traditional media, and there are a number of free tools that can be used to monitor Twitter, including Monniter, TweetDeck and Twitter Search.
While privacy settings may restrict the search of Facebook pages, it is possible to carry out a search of public posts. Socialmention.com provides a snapshot of who is discussing your school in which online forum.
When certain provisions of the Education Act 2011 come into force, schools will have the power to search electronic devices and to delete data where appropriate. This may prove to be significant in tackling cyber-bullying.
But can the school intervene when cyber-bullying is taking place off school premises? Schools have always had the right to take disciplinary action in respect of conduct that affects the school's reputation or the welfare of a member of the school community. In addition, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provided an explicit right for schools to take action in respect of misconduct, whether or not pupils are on school premises or in school care at the time.
The government guidance
The current Department for Education guidance on bullying, Preventing and Tackling Bullying: Advice for School Leaders, Staff and Governing Bodies, was issued in July last year. The guidance covers a range of issues:
- Use of child protection procedures where there is cause to suspect a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm as a result of bullying.
- The Equality Act 2010, under which harassment on grounds of "protected characteristics" including race and sexual orientation is unlawful.
- The criminal offences that may be committed in the course of cyber-bullying, including offences under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Communications Act 2003.
Serious incidents that involve the risk of significant harm should be discussed with the local authority's designated officer, who may advise a formal referral to the statutory agencies. Schools need to take care when investigating incidents to ensure that they do not prejudice any subsequent action by the police or other agencies.
How can schools help?
Schools need to develop a toolkit of strategies to beat cyber-bullying. These could include:
- Involving parents and pupils to build confidence that any complaint about bullying will be taken seriously.
- An "acceptable use" policy for ICT within the school, making it clear that any abuse of electronic devices will be dealt with under the school's disciplinary procedures.
- Effective staff training.
Schools are on the front line in the battle with cyber-bullies. Robust policies, clear communication with parents, pupils and staff and keeping up to date with developments will help them to tackle technology's risks and benefits.
Yvonne Spencer, a partner at education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards, will speak about cyber-bullying at the TES Resources North show, which starts today in Manchester. To discuss any aspect of cyber-bullying at your school, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Preventing and Tackling Bullying: Advice for School Leaders, Staff and Governing Bodies (2011). Department for Education.