What responsibilities does a school team have in relation to cyberbullying?

A whole-school approach recognises that all aspects of the school community can promote – or reduce –students’ social and emotional wellbeing, and that students’ learning and their health are inextricably linked. As with any other form of bullying, whole-school improvement with a focus on cyberbullying can have a significant impact on school culture.

As a school team concerned with cyberbullying, your primary responsibilities are firstly to develop clear, cohesive policies and procedures around the use of digital technologies by members of the school community, and secondly to ensure that these policies are reviewed frequently and implemented effectively. Schools with clear and consistent policy and procedures for practice send a strong message to the whole-school community about the school’s beliefs and actions to encourage a safe and supportive school environment. Against the backdrop of increasing technology use in schools, it is essential to examine school policy guidelines with a specific focus on digital media.

To successfully manage policy development, implementation and review, your school team should be able to do the following:

  • identify existing school policies related to the use of digital technologies
  • apply guiding principles when designing school policies concerning the use and misuse of technology
  • recognise the importance of establishing procedures and practices for the integration of technology into teaching and learning
  • appreciate that the misuse of technology is potentially a crime
  • utilise knowledge of policy implementation in responding to online issues

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How should we review and develop school policies concerning digital technology?

School policies are designed to describe, for all stakeholders, the acceptable standards of behaviour in the school context. While many teachers view social media as a valuable educational tool, the regulatory environment continues to grapple to find answers for its use inside the teacher’s working environment. Schools, staff, parents and students all have a role to play in managing the foreseeable risks of cyberbullying, so an effective school policy needs to provide advice to these groups.

1. Establishing a vision statement and guiding principles

In developing or reviewing school policies that encourage positive online behaviour, it is important to firstly develop both a whole-school vision statement and a set of guiding principles. These starting points establish common ground that your team can refer back to when assessing the value of specific policies.

A vision statement is a short statement summarising the overarching goal that your team will work towards achieving within your whole-school community. While not directly related to the digital environment, the National Safe Schools Framework provides a useful example of a vision statement:

All Australian schools are safe, supportive and respectful teaching and learning communities that promote student wellbeing.

Guiding principles expand on your vision statement in order to provide a foundation for the development of a comprehensive, whole-school effort to promote a safe and supportive digital environment. In other words, your guiding principles will set out how your team plans to action the whole-school community vision. Below are examples of guiding principles developed and tested by schools involved in the Friendly Schools research.

The school:

  • promotes a well-defined and agreed-upon understanding of acceptable behaviour for all members of the school community, both online and offline
  • establishes and endorses a shared responsibility among the whole-school community to prevent and report incidents of cyberbullying
  • develops and consistently implements student behaviour policies that articulate programs and processes for promoting a safe and supportive environment
  • encourages active participation of staff, students, families and the whole-school community to plan, implement and evaluate school policies, procedures and practices
  • ensures that the roles and responsibilities of all members of the school community as outlined in the policy are explicit and clearly understood
  • recognises that a school leadership team that is committed to a shared vision through policy and practice is essential for establishing a safe and supportive school environment
  • provides professional learning and support for staff to implement the student behaviour policies
  • regularly monitors and evaluates policies and procedures so that evidence-based practice supports decisions and guides improvement

2. Reviewing existing school policies

As a school team, you have a responsibility to ensure that your school’s policy documentation establishes sufficient procedures and practices governing the use and misuse of technology. It is important for schools to conduct a review of policy and practices involving their school community to effectively

  • understand positive behaviours students are using to engage online, e.g. using social networking sites
  • appreciate the problems associated with inappropriate online behaviour
  • develop common understanding and commitment to the promotion of positive uses of technology, in particular social networking
  • motivate the school community to support and promote positive behaviours online
  • develop a plan of action specific to the school’s needs

While your school may not yet have specific policies that deal with the use of social media, it is likely that existing policies and guidelines already set clear boundaries for appropriate behaviour that can be applied in the online environment. School policies with information on acceptable use of technology using social networks may include the following:

  • bullying policy
  • staff conduct policy
  • child protection policy
  • duty of care policy
  • information and communication technology (ICT) agreement

When developing or reviewing a policy document, it is important to consider that policies are much easier to understand and implement if the messages are consistent throughout all school policies. School teams should therefore familiarise themselves with the above policies and any others that might be pertinent, taking special notice of any content relevant to the use and misuse of digital technology.

3. Developing policies

Once a whole-school vision and guiding principles are established and relevant school policies have been identified, the next stage is to develop or review existing policies to guide practice in schools. Below are some general guiding principles for policy documents:

  1. Policies should be developed and written in terms that can be easily understood by the whole-school community.
  2. School community members respond better when policies are framed positively, with the presumption that standards of behaviour will be upheld.
  3. Policies require consistent reinforcement within the whole-school community, achieved through repeated dissemination (not just a single noticeboard or website posting) and ongoing emphasis (in assemblies, forums, community meetings and so on).
  4. Policies should be implemented and enforced consistently, in a clear and public fashion.

To help school staff to review or renew their school policies related to the use and misuse of technology, Friendly Schools offer a series of three fact sheets to model and guide policy development. The first fact sheet assembles evidence-based recommendations from current research into policy development; the second presents a sample social media policy, along with elucidating commentary; and the third offers a set of troubleshooting scenarios that demonstrate ways to apply school policy in response to online incidents. Simply click on the name to download the relevant fact sheet.

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What does the law say about cyberbullying in schools?

With the exception of one New South Wales statute, which is limited in its application, there are no laws that specifically prohibit bullying – let alone cyberbullying. However, there are a wide range of laws, both criminal (which can lead to imprisonment, fine or other punishment) and civil (which can lead to compensation being awarded), that may apply to behaviour that constitutes cyberbullying. In this way, a person who cyberbullies others may commit a criminal offence like assault, misuse of telecommunication services, stalking, vilification or even, in some jurisdictions, torture. They may also be liable to pay compensation in a civil suit on grounds such as assault, vilification, defamation, breach of confidence or invasion of privacy.

Of particular relevance for school teams is the fact that the cyberbullying of a student could lead to a school (or, more properly, the school authority that runs the school) being held legally responsible and ordered to pay compensation on grounds such as negligence and defamation. It would therefore be prudent to bear in mind the potential for criminal or civil liability when designing school policies related to the use and misuse of technology.

School teams interested in learning more about cyberbullying in relation to the law may wish to seek out the following research papers, all of which are available in full at the links provided:

  • Butler, DA, Kift, SM & Campbell, MA 2010, ‘Cyber bullying in schools and the law: Is there an effective means of addressing the power imbalance?’ eLaw Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 84–114,

  • Kift, SM, Campbell, MA & Butler, DA 2010, ‘Cyberbullying in social networking sites and blogs: Legal issues for young people and schools’, Journal of Law, Information and Science, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 60–97,

  • Butler DA, Kift, SM, Campbell, MA, Slee, P & Spears, B 2011, ‘School policy responses to cyberbullying: An Australian legal perspective’, International Journal of Law and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 7–28,

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What are Student Cyber Leaders and how can we implement this strategy at our school?

During Friendly Schools research, students over 14 years were found to be less responsive than younger students to cyber-safety lessons in the classroom. However, they expressed a genuine concern about cyber issues and showed an interest in being involved in as leaders in school initiatives to address these matters. The role of these older students as student leaders, encouraging and enabling other young people to use technology in positive ways, was found to have positive outcomes for both the student leaders and their peers.

Two Friendly Schools resources provide the tools and strategies necessary for implementation of the Student Cyber Leaders program. The Cyber Leaders’ Student Handbook builds the self-efficacy of students to show leadership in their school and with their peers by encouraging and enabling other young people to use technology in positive ways. Meanwhile, the School Staff Handbook for Cyber Leaders guides school staff in supporting student leaders to establish a whole-school ethos and environment where all students feel empowered to use technology in positive ways. These resources provide the starting point for an initiative that helps school leaders and staff to bridge the gap between generations and encourage responsible technology use without depriving students of the power to become self-directed digital citizens.

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Friendly Schools acknowledges the Public Education Endowment Trust (PEET), who provided funding for the Cyber Strong Schools research project on which the Cyberbullying Support section of this website is based.