Gender Diversity in the Boardroom
Toyota Resolves Some of its Legal Problems

Cyberbullying and School Responsibilities

We need to Treat Each Other Better and Reinstate a Societal Ethic

In March 2010, a federal jury ordered the Hudson Area School District in Michigan to pay $800,000 in damages to a student who endured years of emotional, physical, and sexual bullying.  Dane Patterson was in middle school when the bullying began as simple name calling and verbal harassment.  It escalated in high school and included being pushed into lockers and at least one incident in 10th grade where he was sexually harassed – which involved “a naked student rubbing against him” in a locker room.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, most states require their schools to have an anti-bullying policy, as does Hudson Schools.  On some occasions when bullying was reported to the school and the perpetrators could be identified, they were punished.  In other cases teachers who witnessed bullying or who were made aware of it failed to follow through with involving school administration.  And according to court records, in one case a geography teacher actually contributed to the problem by making fun of Patterson in front of the entire class by saying: “How does it feel to be hit by a girl?” after he was slapped by a female student when he attempted to stop her from bullying a classmate. 

The message to schools is that inaction, or an improper response, is not enough when it comes to dealing with bullies.  Schools need to be proactive in preventing bullying from getting out of control.  It is one thing to have a policy in place prohibiting bullying.  It is more important for schools to actively enforce it and take additional steps to foster a positive climate in which bullying of all kinds is not tolerated (by staff or students). 

So, what is the answer to the cyber-bullying problem that threatens the mental and physical health of all too many of our young school children? First, teachers and staff need to be sensitized to the signs of cyber-bullying, how to respond to such incidents, and the reporting mechanisms within the school/school district. Just as sexual harassment training has helped to inform men and women in the workplace to the danger signs of sexual harassment and how it harms others, we need a similar approach to educate youngsters, teachers and staff to the equally egregious offense of cyber bullying.

Standing by and watching it occur without doing anything is contributing to a culture where bullying is considered to be acceptable behavior. For the most part, young children have not developed a moral conscience at the stage of life when bullying first occurs in schools. They have no frame of reference to know it is wrong; parents typically don’t discuss it with their kids; schools do little to educate youngsters about the harmful effects of bullying.

Cyber-bullying is the most serious problem facing our schools today and the consequences can be devastating including suicidal ideation on the part of the bullied individual and even suicide.

Cyber-bullying has become all too common in part because of social media. The bullying can be done anonymously. The party being bullied may not even know the person doing the bullying. According to a University of Michigan study, the consequences of bullying are short and long term and cover a wide range of severity. At the beginning of bullying, the self-esteem of the victim is hit very hard. The victim feels guilty and confused at the same time, trying to figure out why this is happening to them. As it continues, social skills begin to fade away even more and depression starts to set in. If no help is found or if the bullying isn’t even noticed, more severe consequences start to surface. Not so much in middle school, but in the beginning of high school, victims may drop out of school all together. In the most severe cases, suicide is considered and eventually carried out. In the long run, many bullying victims fail to thrive in adulthood: they distrust relationships, are fearful, experience isolation and have difficulties standing up for themselves.

We need a change in the culture of society that uses the anonymity of the Internet and social media postings to mock others and strip away their dignity. It often starts with offensive postings and can lead to videotaping the event that goes viral.

Likewise, the ethical standards of our schools need to catch up with the technology. Students must be taught an Internet ethic just as they should be taught societal ethics in the classroom. Given the amount of time most teenagers spend online each day, accountability and personal responsibility must become part of each school's response to cyber-bullying. There should be zero tolerance for such activities with suspension and ultimately expulsion the penalties for harassing another student in cyberspace. I ask: “Where is the moral outrage? Do we have to wait until a horrific event such as a mass suicide occurs before passing legislation making cyber-bullying a federal crime as are discrimination and sexual harassment?”

I can’t help but wonder whether Adam Lanza, the mass killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was bullied because he may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Of course, that doesn’t excuse his behavior. What he did was horrific and shocked our national conscience. It does, however, raise the broader question in society and the workplace as to how we treat others and the possible harmful effects of discriminatory actions in any form.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 26, 2012