Cyber-bullying is on the increase and cannot be ignored, says Patrick Nash, chief executive, Teacher Support Network
Imagine logging onto MySpace to see a video of a pupil smashing up your car. How would you feel if you were receiving a series of silent phone calls or anonymous text messages warning you to ‘watch your back’? Or if you found pornographic material sent to your phone with your own face superimposed onto that of the actors? Perhaps this has already happened to you? It is certainly the reality facing many teachers targeted by the new phenomenon of cyber-bullying. The latest survey by Teacher Support Network and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) demonstrates that malicious use of internet and mobile phones to bully or harass teachers is having a profound effect on their psychological and physical wellbeing, in some cases leading to sickness absence and even resignation. It’s an issue of which all headteachers need to be aware. Almost a fifth of survey respondents said that they had experienced upsetting emails, texts and calls to their mobile phones and defamatory content posted online.
Jane, a secondary school art teacher from Kent, responded to the survey. She said that she had found sexually explicit comments made about her by pupils on a social networking site and when she confronted the perpetrators, the comments intensified. She also found a forum had been created on an art website with the sole purpose of criticising her teaching. She said: ‘I managed to get the website to remove the content though this has really dented my confidence and made me feel physically ill for several weeks. I coped with it in the end, though I don’t feel it was ever properly dealt with as I could not identify the individuals that had posted the offensive articles.’ Another respondent, Jim, a secondary maths teacher from Devon, said that parents had actually gone to the trouble of setting up a website themselves on which they could criticise and undermine staff at the school. He said: ‘It was clear that the sole aim of this group of parents was to destroy the headteacher’s reputation and character. Their website also referred to other members of staff in derogatory terms which have been highly upsetting and demotivating.’ The survey also revealed that pupils reportedly perpetrated only a third of cyber-bullying and that more than half of respondents cited colleagues and managers as responsible for continuous harassment via emails, texts and phone calls. One respondent described a poor working relationship in which their colleague would email or text rather than discuss issues, even though their rooms were next door to each other.
Another factor associated with this type of bullying is that there appears to be no escape. More than half of respondents said that they had been cyber-bullied outside of school or at home. Patricia, a science teacher from Yorkshire, said: ‘I received threatening phone calls and voicemails, which I suspect were from pupils, but I could not identify exactly who it was. I also had people trying to find out my address by pretending to have a pizza delivery for me. It was the deviousness and tenacity behind the harassment which was so frightening.’ A significant number of respondents also reported hurtful and unnecessary reviews of their teaching on the controversial website www.ratemyteachers.co.uk, whereas others have found themselves the victims of ‘happy slapping’-style attacks which have then been uploaded to websites such as YouTube. The creators of ratemyteachers justify the existence of their site, extolling its virtues as forum for discussion between parents, pupils and teachers. The website’s terms and conditions do not take direct responsibility for content posted but do reserve the right to withdraw content which contravenes the rating rules. Their rules condemn content which is vulgar or offensive; has anything to do with personal appearance, race, religion, sexual orientation or threatens the safety of teachers. The only problem with this style of gatekeeping is that offensive material could remain online for some time before website administrators are informed and asked to act on this.
In his speech to delegates at the NASUWT conference in Belfast, the secretary of state for education and skills, Alan Johnson called for the owners of large social networking websites to police the content and protect those that may be at threat from bullies. Recent reforms to the legislation surrounding the powers of teachers to control pupil behaviour now enable them to confiscate mobile phones if they suspect that they are being used in a malicious or hurtful purposes. However, how much responsibility and/or control can or should be exercised with regard to new technologies?
There is no simple answer, though at Teacher Support Network we believe that only by working together can bullying behaviour be eradicated. Guidance on how to deal with cyber-bullies and their victims is available on our website: www.teachersupport.info
In practical terms, if headteachers or other members of staff find defamatory content on a school website, for example, the head of ICT will be able to get the content removed and see if there are ways to trace the perpetrator. If the bullying is on a social networking site such as Bebo or YouTube it is possible to flag the content as inappropriate or send an email to customer services. Further action that headteachers can encourage their staff to take relating to bullying via text messages, phone calls and/or emails includes keeping all text messages and emails as evidence; changing their mobile phone number; reporting threatening behaviour to the police and using voicemail to vet calls.
Putting a policy in place
Though guidance is available from various organisations, including teacher unions and Teacher Support Network, on how to deal with cyber-bullying, almost half of the cyber-bullying survey respondents said that they did not know of any specific policy in place at their school with regard to this issue. This is something else a headteacher can address. Teacher Support Network and ATL recommend that schools, parents, teachers and pupils work together to create a zero-tolerance code of practice regarding bullying. Tackling a culture of bullying requires the collaboration of the entire community and cyber-bullying is no different. The implications of posting offensive content online can in many ways have a wider-reaching effect than a note passed around class or graffiti in the school toilets. It means that bullying can be witnessed by a teacher’s friends, family and peers and ultimately have a far more devastating effect. As with every technological development, the internet and mobile phones have brought various advantages, including cheaper and more frequent communication and a wealth of information at the touch of a button. However, the technology has its downside and cyber-bullying is one of them.
Whether the larger websites can effectively exercise censorship of hurtful or abusive content, one certainty is that cyber-bullying is not diminishing and can therefore not be ignored.