As Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) vows, “Everyone has the right to feel respected and be treated with dignity. Schools must be safe, provide an optimal environment for achievement and be free from violence.” In the digital age, that includes trying to maintain a safe environment online.
Stopbullying.gov defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers and tablets.” The website notes that the “most common places where cyberbullying occurs are (on) Social Media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter; SMS (Short Message Service) also known as Text Message sent through devices; Instant Message (via devices, email provider services, apps, and social media messaging features); and Email.”
According to Janet Shipman, FCPS supervisor of behavioral health and student services, “Elementary school counselors are now dealing with issues surrounding phones and social media (as early as) grades four and five.”
“Some students report text messages to school staff when they are troubled by the message they received,” said Shipman. “The messages are usually mean-spirited with the intent to embarrass or upset the recipient. The most common messages reported by students are those that include insults and fabrications.”
Sometimes, students receive one malicious text that is not part of a series of texts. “While inappropriate,” Shipman explained, “one malicious act does not meet the definition of bullying. If the texts or posts are ongoing, they will meet the definition of bullying/harassment.”
That’s when FCPS Regulation 400-48 kicks in. “Bullying, harassment, or intimidation includes ongoing intentional conduct, including verbal, physical, or written conduct, or intentional electronic communication that creates a hostile educational environment by substantially interfering with a student’s educational benefits, opportunities, or performance, or with a student’s physical or psychological well-being that occurs on school property, at a school activity or event, or on a school bus.”
“It is imperative that the student target immediately informs school staff if the bullying continues so that the staff can address it,” said Shipman.
According to the regulation, to report bullying, “Bullying, Harassment, or Intimidation Reporting Forms may be submitted by a student, parent, close adult relative, or staff member to school administration. … (The forms) may be obtained in the school’s main (front) office and counselor’s office (or) electronically from the school system’s website.”
“If a student reports that they have received text messages that included threats of physical violence (individual and group), sexually explicit messages or photos, or hate crimes, schools may contact parents and the school resource officer,” said Shipman. She added, “Neither a student nor parent should wait until the next school day to address the situation. Parents can contact the authorities to make the report—especially for those instances that the texts are threatening or sexual in nature. … (They can also) notify the cell phone and/or internet service provider to report the incident(s).”
“Parents are encouraged to monitor their child’s cell phone and internet use,” said Shipman, “and encourage open communication about messages that may be hurtful and/or inappropriate. When they receive an inappropriate or hurtful message, individuals should not respond and not engage.”
“If the text message was sent after school hours,” she said, “the student should share the text or social media post with his/her parent or guardian. The parent or guardian is responsible for determining (the) next steps. Next steps may include blocking the number or social media account, contacting parents of the person who sent the text, and/ or contacting law enforcement. … If the student is being bullied in the community or on social media outside of the school day, the parents may want to seek guidance and learn about their options from law enforcement.”
For substantiating claims of bullying, said Shipman, “screenshots are beneficial, and parents can also print the messages for documentation.”
Punishment for the student involved in harassing other students varies. “It depends on the situation and if the individual had previously received consequences for bullying. The goal is to change behaviors, so in addition to any disciplinary action taken, the student who bullied participates in an educational activity with a counselor or administrator.”
As for the student targeted, “The school works with the parents and the student to determine needs of the student. The goal is to ensure that the target is safe and feels safe.”
“In addition to text messages, posts on social media can be offensive, hurtful and humiliating,” said Shipman. Social media apps often have methods for reporting cyberbullying and/or blocking offenders directly from their apps; such platforms include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp. Stopbullying.gov gives many examples of harassing text messages, including threatening to hurt someone or telling the recipient to kill themselves (the text abbreviation used is ‘kys’, which stands for “kill yourself”). Other forms of cyberbullying include requesting nudes, whereby one student demands that another student send them nude photos; or sending unsolicited sexual texts to a recipient.
FCPS policy states that “It is an expectation that employees and students use social media in a civil, respectful, and safety-conscious manner that is consistent with the school system’s mission and does not infringe on the rights of others. … To promote school safety, FCPS recommends: Report It, Don’t Repost It.”