Developing Effective Anti-Bullying Programs
In a previous blog entry, I explained that cyberbullying is a complex issue because it involves off-campus, online speech. Furthermore, when a school suspends a student for cyberbullying, First Amendment rights are implicated. When this happens, the student and her parents may sue the school district for constitutional violations. Likewise, a school district may be liable if it fails to protect a student from cyberbullying. In either case, school districts will see their wallets take a big hit.
Litigation is very expensive. Enacting new legislation that imposes stringent requirements on schools can still cost a chunk of taxpayer money and enormous administrative headaches. Just because the state government passes a new law does not mean that all will end well. In fact, litigation and new legislation may cause new problems and unintended consequences that many did not predict.
In my view, school districts at large haven’t quite figured out how to develop or implement effective anti-cyberbullying programs. Many schools typically show anti-bullying videos and have infrequent class discussions about the dangers of cyberbullying. Occasionally, a special guest will give a presentation. The problem is that this is not terribly effective–it doesn’t stick.
When I was in high school, I remember attending school assemblies where safety videos were screened at the auditorium. I don’t think that many students paid much attention to those videos. We just talked amongst ourselves, passed notes, or took a nap until the lights came back on. I don’t think much has changed over the years. Schools and various TV ads spend too much time teaching students to say “No” or “Think Before You Click.” How much of it really sticks?
Much more is needed than simple 30 second sound bytes.
For an anti-cyberbullying program to be effective, students must be active participants in the classroom. An effective anti-cyberbullying program is one in which students develop an excellent understanding of First Amendment issues and can engage in ethical (or philosophical) debates about free speech. Moreover, an effective anti-cyberbullying program teaches students can clearly define “parody,” “satire,” and “hate speech.”
Children as young as 10 or 12 should be able to clearly define and distinguish “parody” from “hate speech.” A student in junior high is smart enough to understand basic free speech issues and should be able to engage in ethical debates about their right to free speech. High school students can continue expanding their knowledge of free speech issues in History, English, or Social Studies classes. Lawyers who practice First Amendment should be invited to give presentations on a regular basis. State and federal judges may also be willing to talk to students.
If this sounds impossible or unrealistic, it shouldn’t be. One need not be a lawyer to define “hate speech”; one need not attend law school to read case summaries or debate First Amendment issues. There are books about cyberbullying and First Amendment issues that cater to youngsters. One interesting book written by a judge for junior and high school students is Teen Cyberbullying Investigated. You can read a sample chapter here to get an idea of what it looks like.
Finally, schools should offer students the opportunity to exercise their knowledge of First Amendment issues and show their creativity to combat cyberbullying in innovative ways. For example, students can compete with other schools and form teams to debate free speech and cyberbullying. Or perhaps create a Facebook page or website about cyberbullying. Or make a film and post it on YouTube. The possibilities are endless–and these things will have a lot more impact than watching 30 second ads screened at school auditoriums.