Social Media bring new challenges for schools and their bullying policies

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Bullying is a nationwide conversation. The conversation has even expanded to Hollywood, with the book-to-Netflix series known as “13 Reasons Why,” and documentaries like “Audrie and Daisy.”

The conversation is not without merit, either. Studies have shown bullying has effects on victims and perpetrators. The Centers for Disease Control reports that victimized youth are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties and poor school adjustment; whereas students who perpetrated the bullyig are at an increased risk of substance abuse, academic problems and more violence later on. 

Another study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows the effects of bullying of any kind can be long term, moving well into adulthood. Being bullied may result in altered physiological responses to stress, increases in the risk of developing mental health issues, increases in the susceptibility to illness by interfering with immune responses and possibly increases in the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

Schools and parents in Michigan are navigating the issue, especially cyberbullying.

Kevin Epling

Kevin Epling, advocate and national co-director for Bully Police USA (Credit: Kevin Epling)

“We were just as ignorant as every other parent to the depth of what bullying and cyberbullying can do when it struck our family.”

In 2002, Kevin Epling’s son Matt, took his own life after a hazing incident on his last day of eighth grade by upperclassmen from the high school. “We were just as ignorant as every other parent to the depth of what bullying and cyberbullying can do when it struck our family,” Epling said.

Rather than stay ignorant, Epling stood up. He became a parent advocate, eventually pursuing legal and political avenues that resulted in legislation titled “Matt’s Safe School Law.” Epling said the law provides guidelines for schools on certain language within their policies on bullying and harassment. As of 2015, cyberbullying was included in that language.

However, schools have found loopholes within the legislation; training for teachers is not mandatory and cyberbullying is only the school’s problem if it is done using the school’s technology and equipment. Moreover, if schools are in violation of the law, there is no punitive damage.

Aimee Alaniz, school safety consultant at the Michigan Department of Education, said policy issues are handled locally, unless brought to the MDE’s attention.

Tara Meysn, a former high school teacher in Mason, Mich., who is writing a graduate thesis on social media policies in Ingham County schools, said teachers especially are at a disadvantage when schools are doing the bare minimum.

Her research suggests schools need to have staff trained on issues of bullying to protect their students, Mesyn said. “It’s hard though, with limited resources and time and so many things on teachers’ plates as is, but it’s an important issue that needs addressing.”

Teachers are what is known as ‘mandated reporters’ in schools, so if they see something happening in their halls, or online during school hours, they should be saying something. However, the line blurs with technology and social media, especially after school hours.

Meysn said that, though teachers should be reporting anything they see that is concerning, it’s not a “teacher’s job to troll social media constantly, because that’s a full time job on its own.”

Epling, however, is of a different mindset. “I have felt personally that there is no difference between something that happens online and something that happens in your classroom,” he said. “At some point, it is still an interpersonal relationship, and it will eventually manifest in your school if you don’t deal with it.”

“In the last few years, schools have done a lot to push parents out of school, when really we need to pull them back in.”

With teachers having to navigate the murky waters of technology, especially in terms of cyberbullying, they need help and direction and a designated person to report these matters, said Meysn. Some schools have this, and some don’t, just as some schools have training, and some don’t.

“We don’t have training, per say,” said Jeff Thoenes, Williamston High School’s principal. “If you mean training like having someone come in to talk and teach, or going through Powerpoints, then no, we don’t have that. We do talk extensively about technology and social media in staff meetings, though.”

Aside from training, another thing teachers are lacking is the help and involvement of parents. “In the last few years, schools have done a lot to push parents out of school, when we really need to pull them back in,” said Epling. “It’s a triangle: you have the teachers and administration, you have the students, and then you have the parents. If one of them goes out of balance, that’s bad, because they all should be working together.”

Matt Epling, son of Kevin, committed suicide 40 days after the end of 8th grade (Credit: mattepling.com)

A lot of the time, Epling said, parents don’t know how to be involved. “What parents need to do is look at the policy, cross reference it with the law, and then ask the hard questions: What are you doing to make this policy a living document, what are you doing in terms of training with teachers, what are you doing for students and to make parents more aware, and most importantly, what have you been doing and what results can you show me, what is your track record?”

Meysn expressed similar sentiments. “Parents need to be reading these policies, and they need to be readily accessible to parents and the students, too,” she said. Some schools, though more rare, still have this parent connection,” said Meysen.

Thoenes said whenever there is an issue or investigation, the parents are the first to know. “We always let the parent know if and when we’re intervening with their student.”

“This is not the bullying we went through, and people need to realize that.”

One area administrators, teachers and parents as a whole are all together on is the one that is the most concerning for people like Epling and Meysn: How easily the culture of the school and the seriousness of bullying can be pushed aside.

“I think what a lot of adults don’t get is that, in the advent of technology and social media, and just with the changing culture, this is not the bullying we went through, and people need to start realizing that,” said Meysn.

Epling went even deeper:

“A lot of people were told way back when, ‘Okay, suck it up, get over it, you’re going to be stronger  when you come out the other side.’ But now we have the data, and even those people, who were bullied 30-plus years ago, they remember. They remember the bullies who abused them, they remember the incidents. It’s there; you don’t see it on the outside, but it leaves a psychological scar on people.”

And the data does back up these statements. In the longitudinal studies done by National Center for Biotechnology Information as well as by the National Institute of Mental Health, the long-term effects last well into adulthood, and the resulting physical and mental ramifications actually put a large financial burden on the country.

It is estimated that bullying prevention could save the U.S. economy over $1.6 million a year, according to the NCBI study.

So, what more can schools do, rather than stick with the bare minimum? Epling said the focus should be on the school culture. “If schools don’t change the climate and put it before even academic success, they’re going to lose, and they’re going to keep losing, because everyone knows that students aren’t learning if they’re too afraid to go to school.

Even Thoenes acknowledged the difficulty schools have in altering the climate. “I don’t want to get political, but it’s challenging due to what is going on nationally,” Thoenes said. “We need to realize that we are being watched, and act as role models and with integrity.”  

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