Student View

Should Your School Punish Cyberbullies?

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One-third of middle and high school students have been victims of cyberbullying, according to a recent report. The attacks can occur at any time. Threatening texts. Vicious emails. Embarrassing social media pics. 

Experts say such online harassment is on the rise. And because it can happen anywhere, schools are faced with a dilemma: how to ­handle cyberbullying that takes place off campus. In recent years, states such as California and Illinois have passed laws allowing schools to punish kids for cyberbullying that occurs off school grounds. 

Supporters of such laws say schools have a responsibility to punish online bullies because the taunts can affect victims’ ability to learn and feel safe at school—especially if the tormenters are their classmates.

But other people say parents—not teachers—should handle off-­campus cyberbullying. They say online bullying rarely interferes with learning, so teachers have no right to police it.

Should schools punish students for cyberbullying that takes place off campus—or should that be left to parents? Two experts weigh in.

YES

At least one in three middle and high school students have experienced cyberbullying. They are tormented online in ways that can make learning at school extremely difficult. Educators can and should respond to these incidents even if they occur away from the classroom.

Schools are obligated to make sure students feel safe in class.

Courts have already determined that schools have the right to punish students for their off-campus behavior. That includes what happens online if whatever occurred causes a “substantial disruption” of the learning environment—or interferes with the rights of students. There is no doubt that if kids are being mistreated online, their ability to learn and feel safe at school is disrupted. 

Additionally, research shows that when students are cyberbullied, more often than not they’re also being harassed at school. Online abuse, therefore, can indicate school-based bullying, which schools are required to respond to. 

Our research shows that students who believe school officials will punish them for cyberbullying are less likely to torment their classmates than those who don’t fear punishment. If educators clearly convey that students who engage in cyberbullying will face consequences at school, the behavior will likely decrease. 

Teachers and principals are best equipped to deal with issues that come up between students. Of course, it’s important that the school’s response to online bullying is appropriate and educational. For example, administrators could require students to create anti-cyberbullying materials or give a presentation to younger kids about acceptable online behavior.          

—Justin W. Patchin
Co-Director, Cyberbullying Research Center 

NO

Social media makes it easy for kids to connect with their peers anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, some students use the internet to harass and shame their classmates. We can all agree that cyberbullying is wrong and should never be tolerated. However, it’s a matter that should be dealt with by parents—not school officials. 

If students act out off campus, it should be parents who decide the punishment.

Educators have the authority to discipline students when they violate school rules, such as getting into a fight on school grounds. But if students act out off campus, it’s up to parents to decide the punishment. The same should go for online activity. If cyberbullying takes place outside of school hours, it should be handled by parents and only brought to the attention of the school administration as necessary, such as if the victim feels unsafe in class.

When schools start to police social media posts, it could infringe on students’ First Amendment right to free speech. In more than one case, courts have ruled that schools can’t limit students’ online posts when they’re outside of class unless the messages cause a “substantial disruption” at school. 

Teachers and principals work hard to build strong relationships with their students. It would be terrible if forcing educators to hand out punishments for things that happen outside of class damaged those bonds. 

Instead of punishing students, a better way to combat cyberbullying would be for schools to teach appropriate online behavior along with explaining why cyberbullying is wrong and how it can hurt its victims. That way, teachers can be educators, not full-time disciplinarians.

—Edwin C. Yohnka
Director of Communications and Public Policy,
American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois

CORE QUESTION: What evidence does each writer use to support his claims? How does each one address the other side’s arguments? Who do you think makes the stronger case? Why?

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