June 29, 2010
Schools’ cyberbullying conundrum
I’ve been really torn about responding to this one–Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray–though since the Times got 547 comments on it, I guess I better chime in….
The conundrum is how much schools can do to prevent and punish cyberbullying by text message, YouTube, or Facebook, that occurs off school grounds and outside of school hours. The article profiles Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey, and is accompanied by a chilling picture, which I can only hope was posed, of a small group of very young (like maybe 11 or 12) female students, standing in a semi-circle, not chatting or playing, but texting on Blackberries and other elaborate QWERTY-enabled phones.
It’s a hard one for me, because of course I’d like to side with the bullying victims and say that the school should do everything in its power to stop bullying. But in this case, “everything in its power” would mean an unacceptable intrusion into students’ lives outside of school (as we should’ve learned from the Pennsylvania case in which a school district was caught monitoring students in their own bedrooms via their laptop cameras).
And certainly, the schools create the kind of environment in which bullying of all kinds thrives, so it’s tempting to want to hold them responsible when the nastiness goes off school grounds.
But…why do middle school students have smart phones? Why do they have internet usage unmonitored by parents? Why do they have Facebook pages (against even Facebook’s terms of service, which bar anyone under 13) without their parents being their “friends” and therefore able to see everything that happens on the page? These circumstances are created by parents, and the responsibility of raising kids to be decent human beings is the responsibility of parents. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t, that discipline for kids’ wrongdoing outside of school is the responsibility of their parents.
The article recounts a few different schools’ experiences with massively disruptive incidents born from online spats, and their attempts to smooth things out between students. Principal Tony Orsini laments that “All we are doing is reacting. We can’t seem to get ahead of the curve.”
No, Mr. Orsini, you can’t. Because you might have the legal designation of in loco parentis when it comes to restricting students’ civil rights and commanding their behavior in your building, but you can’t actually take the place of a parent. And you can’t teach compassion or respect or human decency in a basically authoritarian institution where children are considered as factory products instead of people.
In the end, Benjamin Franklin Middle School organizes a group of 8th grade girls to talk to the 6th graders about responsible technology use and cyberbullying. Actually, not such a bad idea, to enlist older students, who kids might be more likely to take seriously than their parents or teachers. The 6th graders seem intrigued. But unintentionally, it sort of highlights exactly what’s wrong with middle school environments that allows and encourages cyberbullying in the first place: the environment itself practically enforces immaturity. There are no younger kids to look after and protect, there are no older kids to look up to and emulate, and the only adults are ones whose job it is to control and manipulate you, so they’re not very compelling role models. And there’s nothing meaningful to do. Is it really any wonder at all that kids turn to petty technology-mediated aggression for entertainment and to make themselves feel bigger?
I wish schools would return to housing kindergartners through 6th graders together, and 7th graders through high school seniors together. My own school district back in Kansas City has recently gone even further in the wrong direction, separating 6th graders out from the middle schools and putting them in a designated “6th grade center.” I don’t even want to imagine what kind of psychodrama goes on in that place.
The article closes with a sweet sounding girl named Emily telling the younger kids that if they’re being cyberbullied, “Go to the school. The school will make it stop, immediately!” But Emily dear, most schools can barely control the bullying that goes on inside their walls. I’m glad your school at least takes it seriously.
There’s a saying in biology and genetics regarding the influence of both nature and nurture on outcome: “Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” In the case of cyberbullying, parental negligence is loading the gun, and school environment is pulling the trigger. (The technology is only amplifying effects; there were predatory little girls a long time before we had Facebook.) But schools aren’t capable of dealing with the consequences; they cannot be expected to act as police, prosecutor, judge and jury when discipline matters cross over into stalking, harassment, and libel; and we should not invite them to have any more reach into students’ out of school lives than they already do. It’s like schools have scared parents into doubting their ability to do their own jobs. Parents need to stand up for their kids and take it back. And if they don’t understand the technology or how to control it, they need to learn…before they give a Blackberry to an 11-year-old.