Cyberbullying among children has firmly caught the media’s attention, but it is only recently that attention has been drawn to how new technologies are being used to bully teachers

What is cyberbullying?
Given the historical child-centric approach to bullying, the most-used definitions are those provided by children’s organisations. Childnet International defines cyberbullying as a type of aggression relating to the “sending or posting of harmful or cruel text or images using the internet or other digital communication devices”.

What is being done to tackle it?
Recently the government pledged to help teachers, by increasing the scope of the “cyberbullying taskforce”, to stop pupils targeting them. In addition, they are considering setting up a hotline to which teachers could report incidents, and claim to be working with a range of websites, phone companies and internet service providers to address the problem. Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, are demanding greater protection, asking for mobile phones to be classed as “potentially offensive weapons” and for a ban on online allegations.

How commonly do teachers encounter it?
The last few years has seen a rapid rise in the number of cyberbullying incidents against teachers. A survey undertaken by the Teacher Support Network and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers revealed that 17% of respondents have experienced cyberbullying, while teachers’ unions claim the figure is actually even higher.

Just as concerning is the fact that 53% of respondents in the survey did not know whether their school had a code of conduct to address cyberbullying, while 39% said they knew that their school, in fact, did not have such a policy. Further, referring to those schools where there was a policy, 19% of respondents stated that it was poorly enforced.

It should be noted that while the majority of cyberbullying against teachers originates from pupils, it may also be perpetrated by other teachers.

What form does this take in practice?
The Anti-Bullying Association has identified seven types of cyberbullying. These are equally applicable to the cyberbullying of teachers as they are to children:

1. Text messages.
2. Picture/video-clips via mobile phone cameras.
3. Mobile phone calls − silent or abusive messages; or stealing the victim’s phone and using it to harass others.
4. Emails − often sent using a pseudonym or somebody else’s name.
5. Chatroom bullying.
6. Instant messaging (IM).
7. Bullying via websites.

Bullying via websites appears to be the most emotive form of cyberbullying against teachers. The education secretary has stated that he believes that the “big companies” behind social networking sites live up to their moral responsibility and stop publishing school videos posted by pupils. In addition, the site has come in for particular criticism. The site invites pupils to comment on a teacher’s professional and personal qualities. Teachers claim that it is frequently misused by pupils to simply abuse teachers.

As with cyberbullying between children, the effect on teachers can be devastating. The offending material can stay on websites for a long time, spread quickly and does not stop at the school gates, entering the victim’s personal space. At school, there may be negative effects on a teacher’s confidence, reputation and credibility, affecting career progression and sometimes even resulting in early retirement. Away from school, personal lives, social lives and friendships can be damaged.

How should schools tackle this?
Schools must first recognise that cyberbullying against teachers is a real problem and that they have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect their teachers from foreseeable harm.

Cyberbullying should be dealt with in the same way as other types of bullying, creating a zero-tolerance code of practice by integrating it within the school’s anti-bullying procedures (required to be in place by the School Standards & Framework Act 1998, or the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003). The Department for Children, Schools and Families itself recommends that parents should be involved, telling them of their responsibilities and showing them what their child has done.

In terms of disciplinary measures a school can take, cyberbullying falls within the remit of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. This requires headteachers to promote discipline, good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying. Pursuant to this, the Act grants headteachers the power to take measure to “such an extent as is reasonable”. The act also allows for the confiscation of items, including mobile phones, from pupils who misuse them − whether inside, or outside of school.

This new legislation also sends a strong message to parents and pupils that bullying will not be tolerated, with court-imposed parenting orders to compel parents of bullies to attend parenting classes or face fines of up to £1,000.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2008

About the author: Dai Durbridge is the author of this week’s Legal Expertise. Dai is a solicitor with the firm at its Nottingham office. He joined in 1999 and is ‘home-grown’ talent having joined the trainee programme in 2001, qualifying in 2003. Dai specialises in social services, education and the care sector and his experience includes handling a variety of high profile claims.