How to Protect Your Students From Cyberbullying

March 19, 2012

In September 2010, a freshman at Rutgers University committed suicide in apparent response to cyberbullying and intimidation by his roommate. Last week the roommate was convicted of criminal charges arising out of the bullying behavior. Numerous similar cases of cyberbullying have been seen across the nation and have given rise to new anti-cyberbullying laws in many states.

Here are steps college administrations can take to better shield their institutions and—more important—their students from harm:

Review and update your social-media policies. In the wake of these events, administrators at colleges should examine how they have—or have not—tailored their anti-bullying and social-media policies to take into account the immediate and significant harm that can be inflicted when bullying behavior leaves the dormitory or the quad and goes online.

Colleges have long been held liable for failing to protect their students from "foreseeable" harm. They have been held accountable when students have died at underage drinking parties that were "condoned" by the college. Last week Virginia Tech was found liable for failing to act swiftly once a gunman started shooting people on campus; had administrators warned students earlier, perhaps some of the deaths could have been avoided. Following the recent Rutgers case, and others like it, colleges must acknowledge that cyberbullying is a real and substantial danger and take steps to prevent it.

Communicate community values to your students. Colleges have long sought to educate incoming students about the institutions' core values. A prime example is the emphasis on teaching students what plagiarism is, and what consequences to expect if they are found to have violated the institution's academic honor code. Students are often required to acknowledge at the very start of the school year that they have read, understood, and will abide by the honor code. In an effort to stay current with the realities of the digital age, professors often inform students how easily they will be able to discover if a student has copied and pasted text from another person's article.

But what are colleges doing to ensure that students understand the (hopefully) updated policies that take into account the pervasive use of Facebook, Twitter, instant text messaging, YouTube, and other forms of digital communication? The Rutgers case illustrates quite starkly that educational institutions must go beyond having privacy and social-media policies written into their student handbooks. Administrators need to take an active role in making sure that their policies are communicated, understood, and followed.

Training on responsible use of social media is becoming more common in business, and this background will inform the "standard of care" that large institutions will be expected to follow. Accordingly, colleges should make training to combat cyberbullying part of their orientation programs for all incoming students. Just as they do with academic honesty policies, colleges can send an unequivocal message that they will identify and hold accountable students who seek to intimidate others whether in person or through digital communications. Harassment of another student online is easy to detect and hard to cover up. The former Rutgers student was convicted, in part, of tampering with evidence as a result of his efforts to conceal text and Twitter messages. As with cheating, the message is plain: There is little to be gained and much to be lost by engaging in cyberbullying.

Audit your own handling of complaints of cyberbullying. Colleges should also consider reviewing cases of cyberbullying and other forms of intimidation that they have handled internally. Is there an administrative procedure to handle such cases? Are students informed of and encouraged to use internal dispute-resolution processes? How often have such cases arisen? How have such cases been resolved? In sum, administrators should consider whether they have a record of diligent and responsible response to cyberbullying and other bullying.

Just as a company should not ignore repeated complaints of discrimination or permit a "hostile work environment" to flourish, colleges should examine whether their campus is "weak on cyberbullying" or other forms of harassment. Even if it avoids liability, the institution's reputation­—and endowment—can suffer harm if students, prospective students, and alumni believe that it is failing to foster a safe and supportive environment for all of its students.

Some campuses have conducted similar inquiries in the past, with regard to hazing and underage drinking, for example. After such reviews, many colleges have taken steps to create a safer and more inclusive environment for all students. Managing the recent and exponential growth of social-media sites and digital forms of communication presents a similar challenge for administrators and educators alike.

Leaders of educational institutions have a duty to protect students from harm and the institution from liability. Thoughtful reflection today could prevent tragedy on campus, avoid exposure to lawsuits, and protect the college's reputation and mission of educating its students.

Sara Jane Shanahan is a partner in the litigation department of the law firm of Sherin and Lodgen LLP in Boston and is co-chair of its social-media and digital-technology practice group. Jessica Gray Kelly is an associate at the firm.