Schools must lead troll-hunt

Letting schools discipline pupils for cyber bullying would make online life safer for children

Once again our newspapers have carried the sad story of a teenager committing suicide as a result of cyber bullying by anonymous ‘trolls’ on a social networking site. The parents of the girl have demanded action against the site in question, the Latvia-based Ask.fm, and asked the Government to regulate similar sites.

Imposing sanctions against one site may make a small difference – if they can be enforced – but others will surely emerge to take its place. The increasing prevalence of social media platforms is exposing children to dangers like never before. Regulation would be a positive step but may be limited to certain jurisdictions. However, attacking cyber bullying at its roots, often among school children, would be another way to generate a cultural shift to deal with the problem.

While schools are increasingly confident with their own, official use of social media platforms, they must not underestimate the risks associated with the use of such networks by their pupils. Today’s children are so accustomed to communicating via social media that it has become part of their daily routine.

In a school environment bullying is always a concern. Playground bullying may be easy to detect, as it may be visible. But bullying online has become more prevalent and is far more difficult to detect or monitor.

If a school’s policy defines what online behaviour is and is not acceptable, disciplinary sanctions against pupils may be justified.

Schools are well-placed to draft policies that are explicit in dealing with the online behaviour of pupils in school or in personal time. A right for a school to monitor pupils’ online activities can help in detecting behaviour which might be of concern and could help to curb the growth of cyber bullying. Behaviour standards should be linked to disciplinary procedures so as to make a clear connection – if pupils cross the line they will be disciplined in a proportionate and consistent manner.

Schools can discipline pupils for misbehaviour when it is identifiable. Also, a pupil may be disciplined for misbehaviour, at any time, that poses a threat to the public or another pupil or that could affect the reputation of the school. Therefore, pupils who are found to be involved in cyber bullying in their free time may still be dealt with.

Regular reinforcement of the message that this behaviour will not be tolerated could do much to change attitudes among young
people. Schools must educate children, and parents, in the risks.

If a school suspects that a child may be suffering or may be likely to suffer serious harm, it should engage its child protection procedures. A victim may be in danger, but bullying behaviours may also indicate psychiatric problems in the bully. 

Online monitoring is one of the keys to ensuring the safety of our children and something all schools should do as a matter of course.

Ben Collingwood, an associate in Barlow Robbins’ education group, assisted with this article