The beast within
If it wasn't for a tip-off from another pupil, the offending webpage might still be up there today. As it is, Karl Peterson found out about it two weeks after its creation.
Within that fortnight, dozens of abusive comments, using deliberately offensive language, had already been posted by pupils about him. "The descriptions of me were personal and demeaning," Mr Peterson remembers. "There were even discussions about whether I must have been abused as a child, which was humiliating for both me and my family. My parents were appalled."
In hindsight, Mr Peterson realises these comments were similar to ones he might easily overhear in the playground. But online abuse is in a much more public forum, and because of the nature of social networking sites such as Bebo, where his pupils chose to hurl their insults, thousands of people can potentially view or add comments to the page.
Unfortunately for the Year 10 creators of the webpage, their identities were easily traced through their usernames and pictures. Mr Peterson took his grievance to the senior management team the following day. Three pupils were subsequently suspended and the offending page was removed by the boys.
In this case, the incident was quickly brought to a close. But for many victims of cyberbullying, the abuse rolls on indefinitely, especially if the source of the offending comments cannot be traced. Some abusive webposts have even been known to "go viral" as viewers share them with ever larger circles of online friends.
Long thought of as something that only happens to vulnerable teenagers, 15 per cent of teachers say they have become victims of cyberbullying, according to a survey by the Teacher Support Network (TSN) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
In an earlier survey, nearly half of teachers said they had been harassed by email, while almost 40 per cent had received silent phone calls. One in 10 had been bullied on websites such as YouTube, MySpace or RateMyTeacher, and 17 per cent had taken sick leave as a result.
The NASUWT union has been campaigning to raise awareness about cyberbullying - which includes unwanted insults, defamation or bullying via email, text, phone or social networking sites - for the past three years.
In 2007, it surveyed its members about the issue. Within five days, almost 100 teachers had reported traumatic incidents involving cyberbullying via mobile phones and websites. Instances of "Tick here if you hate Miss XXX" on Bebo or an equivalent were not uncommon, together with highly offensive and sexually explicit comments by a number of pupils. Other teachers were registered on pornographic websites without their knowledge and then found themselves subjected to a torrent of obscene images in their email accounts.
One female teacher in Essex was secretly pictured by pupils, sweating profusely in the summer heat. It was posted on the internet: cue insulting comments left on the webpage up to a year later. The pupils gave her an offensive online nickname, which was then used to taunt her in the classroom. And the bullying did not end there. When the teacher got a new job at a different school, the nickname and the online picture followed her.
"It's quite a frequent part of the casework we do," explains Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT. "About one in five requests for help we receive involve the abuse of technology."
The misuse of technology often features in other, more serious incidents; for example, in the case of Peter Harvey, a science teacher who was cleared of attempted murder after beating a misbehaving pupil on the head in 2009.
At the trial, it was revealed that minutes before the attack, his pupils at All Saints' Roman Catholic School in Mansfield were taunting him. They called him "psycho" and filmed him as he tried to regain order in the classroom.
"The pupils admitted they planned to film other teachers later that day with the intention of putting it up on the internet," says Ms Keates. "They were using this mobile technology to systematically humiliate teachers."
Ms Keates believes illicit filming exacerbates behavioural problems. Pupils may start to act up for the camera, or at the very least become distracted. The vast majority of teachers will not react like Mr Harvey, but many will become increasingly frustrated and irate, she points out. And any inkling of loss of control is likely to raise the status of the subsequent video in the eyes of the misbehaving pupils.
Once the video is posted online, the audience could, in theory, be global. "The bullying behaviour is the same as it's always been, but the mechanism has changed," explains Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive of the Beatbullying charity. "New technology makes it worse in many ways. Instead of a rumour being constrained to a classroom or a school, an audience of millions could potentially hear about it."
Every person who sees the offensive material will also have the opportunity to add a malicious comment to the footage. Without face-to- face contact and in a seemingly consequence-free environment, pupils are capable of making much more vindictive comments than they would normally, Mr Piggin adds.
One head of department at an independent school says his treatment at the hands of cyberbullies amounted to "the worst week of my teaching life". Another head of department in a state secondary describes how she was unknowingly filmed during a lesson. The footage was then posted on YouTube.
"It caused me a lot of stress and I know that it affected my teaching," she says. "I have lost confidence, been upset, emotional and worried about being the source of ridicule among the pupils. I am also worried about the response from management if the video reached them."
The problem is not restricted to the UK. In Finland - that famous bastion of educational excellence - a teaching union has found that more than one in 10 teachers has experienced cyberbullying.
Offensive remarks about their teaching abilities, their physical appearances or various insulting, threatening or sexist remarks were all reported. In some cases, there were even calls, made online, for teachers to be killed.
"Two teenage boys threw stones at a teacher's car," says Vesa Ilves, who conducted the research. "The teacher reported it to the police so one of the boys opened a Facebook page where he mocked the teacher and teacher's family."
Disturbing cases have also been recorded in the UK. In 2007, a pregnant teacher reported pupils to police after they posted messages threatening her and her unborn child. The NQT found the comments, made by Year 9 pupils, on Bebo.
"Someone had written about killing my unborn baby with a rugby ball," she told The TES. "Another said he swore that he would knock my teeth out and force them down my throat."
The school suspended the pupils but the teacher still considered leaving the profession. In the eyes of the bully, the perceived anonymity of the internet makes it easier to post offensive comments online than to insult people to their face, adds Mr Piggin. "It is a big psychological step to say something really cruel to someone in person," he says.
"Not many people can do it. But if you're doing your homework, browsing Facebook or talking to your friends on MSN at 10 o'clock at night, it's easy.
"You say: `So-and-so is fat and ugly and can't teach', switch off and go to bed. You don't see the reaction and you possibly won't have to deal with the consequences."
However, the last government, and teaching unions, have been keen to ensure that the perpetrators of cyberbullying suffer the consequences. The Labour government created a cyberbullying taskforce to ensure problems are nipped in the bud before they escalate (see box, right).
There have been cases where pupils have been excluded, investigated or even taken to court over cyberbullying.
A 17-year-old boy in Norfolk, for example, was given an anti-social behaviour order to stop him posting offensive comments about police officers on Bebo three years ago. Under the Asbo, he was banned for two years from publishing any material online that could promote criminal activity.
Mr Piggin believes far more guidance and training is needed to educate both teachers and pupils on how to minimise cyberbullying. Teachers also need to know what they can do if they are targeted (see box, left).
"You can bet your bottom dollar that the pupil will have bullied another young person before building up to a teacher," he says. "A fellow pupil is an easier target."
Similarly, online bullying is usually an extension of offline bullying, he adds. Tackle the offline bullying, discuss the psychological effects of online offences, and behaviour should improve. As well as minimising cyberbullying, disciplinary problems, violent incidents in school and exclusions could all decline as a result.
But pupils are not the only ones who need to be educated on the issue. Staffroom bullying between teaching "colleagues", whether on or offline, is also not unheard of, and parents have also been known to act in equally destructive ways.
Three years ago, a head was described as a "child abuser" on a parent's blog. The National Association of Head Teachers successfully shut down the original blog after contacting Microsoft, but the parent began a new one on Google. Taking the parent to court was a possible option, but the union did not want to give him the publicity he craved.
"We have seen a marked increase in calls and emails from teachers who have experienced abuse from colleagues, parents or pupils online," says Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network.
The most frequent complaints involve teachers who suffer abuse via text messages, Twitter, or through Facebook and other social networking sites, he adds. "Schools are seriously lagging behind in implementing policies that could prevent this kind of bullying."
Mr Peterson was satisfied with his school's response to cyberbullying, but he felt the aftercare was sub-standard. He resented the fact that the head only spoke to him several days later, and even then it was just to say: "Chin up!"
He was also denied the opportunity to discuss the incident formally with the boys involved when they returned to school, or to help the governors formulate a policy to help future victims.
"I consider myself quite a strong person who just wanted to get it sorted out quickly, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone else were to crumble over something like this," he says. "You need more support to ensure teachers get over it OK."
Befriending a pupil on Facebook can also lead to a `"nightmare scenario", warns Mr Piggin. Teachers need to think carefully about sharing their mobile numbers, email addresses or MSN usernames with pupils or anyone they do not fully trust.
That may be easier said than done. When a colleague's mobile phone was stolen, containing the phone numbers of several other members of staff, Steven Lucas started to receive anonymous calls to his mobile phone. He believes they were from his pupils, and they referred to him by name. Among other things, they called him a "pervert" and a "paedophile". In all, he received about 50 calls. Mr Lucas found the experience stressful, disturbing and hurtful. Most worrying of all, it was also far from isolated.
The NASUWT has gone further than most organisations to prevent this sort of thing happening to anyone else. It has called for any school policy that requires teachers to disclose their mobile or email details to pupils to be scrapped. It also wants new legislation to outlaw teachers being named on websites and has even demanded that pupils' phones be classed as potentially "dangerous weapons".
Some will think this is going too far. But for the victims of cyberbullying who have struggled to rebuild their reputations after a torrent of online abuse or a secret video posted on YouTube, action like this can't come soon enough.
HOW TO REMOVE OFFENSIVE ONLINE CONTENT
- Take a screen grab of the relevant page and keep it as evidence.
- Try to identify the poster and ask them to remove it.
- If unsuccessful, the cyberbullying lead should contact the host and make a report to get the content taken down.
- If the content is illegal (for example, death threats), the police should be contacted. They have powers to request a service provider to disclose data about users.
Source: Cyberbullying: Supporting School Staff (DCSF; 2009). www.digizen.org.ukcyberbullying
EACH SCHOOL SHOULD .
- Have a designated cyberbullying "lead", ideally a senior member of staff.
- Agree a shared definition of bullying within the whole school.
- Ensure pupils are made aware of the harm cyberbullying can do, plus the possibility of bringing the school into disrepute.
- Put clear and consistent sanctions in place.
- Make sure victims feel confident that their complaint will be taken seriously and addressed quickly.
- Promote e-safety for pupils and staff, including taking care of personal email accounts and mobile phone numbers.
Source: Cyberbullying: Supporting School Staff (DCSF; 2009). www.digizen.org.ukcyberbullying.