Cyber-bullying prevention

August 28, 2009 2:35:03 PM PDT
Cyber-bullying is a form of harassment in schools at a whole new level. Teens use the internet, social networking sites and mobile phones to insult and pick on their classmates. Carolyn Wolf, a mental health lawyer with Abrams Fensterman and founder of Campus Behavioral Health Risk Consultants, joined us with tips for preventing cyber-bullying. What should concern parents most when it comes to their kids' safety at school?

In the past, kids used to be concerned with getting picked-on by bullies in the playground during recess or in the hallways in between classes. But I see a disturbing trend in teen violence going from face-to-face confrontations to aggressive attacks via the Internet.

And if schools do not address how to protect students from cyber-bullying and parents do not demand that safeguards are put in place to keep their children out of harm's way, the consequences will be deadly and the schools may be liable.

What are some examples in the past that have led you to see this as a trend?

In recent years there has been a rash of suicides as a direct result of cyber-bullying.

Fifteen-year old Iain Steele of Western Springs, Illinois hanged himself with a belt after being assaulted by schoolmates in cyberspace, where students posted a video on Facebook making fun of his taste for heavy metal music. Thirteen-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan of Essex Junction, Vermont hanged himself after he was repeatedly sent instant messages from middle school classmates accusing him of being gay. Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri killed herself after she was taunted through social-networking website Myspace.

In fact, a recent study reveals 45 percent of pre-teens said they have been cyber-bullied at school, and 30 percent of teens say they've had the same experience.

What are schools doing to stop cyber bullying?

School policies are outdated and do not address how to monitor and prevent cyber-bullying attacks on social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace or YouTube.

Schools have failed to keep up with the newest types of bullying. And as a parent and lawyer, I would hold the schools accountable for anything that happens under its roof.

What should schools be doing then?

Schools have a myriad of tools at their disposal to combat cyber-bullying, but most are not using them:

· Monitoring computers - Schools have every right to monitor computers being used on their premises and look for keywords that may indicate a cyber-attack and bullying.

· Social Network Sites - Facebook and Myspace should be blocked on school computers. This is the most common area for cyber-bullying.

· Text Messaging - Phones should be turned off during class and texting should be banned by schools. A nuisance to the student? Yes. But we forget they are at school to learn.

· Anti-violence student committee - Similar to New York City's "If you see something, say something" campaign, students should have an outlet to anonymously report cases of bullying to classmates and administrators without fear of repercussion.

· "Behavioral Intervention Teams" - A multi-disciplined group of administrators, mental health experts, risk management and legal counsel should meet regularly to properly address "red flag" or "at risk" students and act toward preventing specific bullying incidents rather than waiting to go into "reactive" mode.

Unfortunately, most schools are asleep at the wheel and are not taking proactive steps to prevent an attack. They prefer to say, 'It won't happen to us.' We live in the Digital Age, and schools would be naïve to think that.

What should parents do?

Before dropping your kids off on the first day of school, parents should talk to administrators about what they are doing to prevent online violence. Parents should hold schools accountable for preventing cyber-bullying. On the first day of school, parents should arrange meetings with administrators to discuss what mechanisms they have in place to monitor online activity and how they would address a potential cyber-bullying incident.

No parent wants to be the overbearing parent. What advice can you offer parents trying to teach their kids responsibility and accountability, while at the same time trying to protect them from cyber-bullying?

Values and consistency are extremely important in this area; speak to other parents and get their "tips" for what works for them; use common sense, this is usually the correct answer, it is also too often overlooked in this era of information availability and I believe overload; trust your gut instincts and experience.

As you know, most kids deeply involved in social networks are teenagers, who also happen to be, for most parents, the most difficult to converse with, about anything, let alone rules of safety and such. Do you have any tips as a professional in your field, who is also a parent, on how best parents can approach this subject without being tuned out?

Start young, keep lines of communication open, keep talking to them, even if unpleasant/difficult subjects; show respect and say "I love you"?words to get through and more than you think or get feedback from these conversations; be realistic about who your kids are and address "red flags" as soon as possible, timing is everything; utilize experts when needed and admit you are not expert in everything, no one is or can be, even the experts; as my mother-in-law who is no longer with us, but who was very wise and a teacher by training used to say "repetition is the mother of learning" and it's true; pick your battles?life and safety, no discussion, no compromise, others, prioritize and back off when able; keep information or interference overload to a minimum, the kids are on information/communication overload from the technology already.

About Carolyn

Carolyn Reinach Wolf, Esq. is Senior Partner at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Greenberg, Formato & Einiger, LLP - with the only mental health law practice in New York. She is also founder of Campus Behavioral Health Risk Consultants, LLC - a consulting firm that addresses mental health and security legal issues on school campuses.

For more on Carolyn's law firm, visit