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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
How do you stop the cyberbullies?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education

Mobile phone
Mobiles have been used in class to make videos of teachers

Teachers have been angered by personal attacks against them on websites. These can be spiteful comments or insulting images - which leave teachers feeling threatened and bullied. But what can be done to prevent it?

Education Secretary Alan Johnson is calling on website publishers to prevent such "cruel and relentless" harassment of teachers - saying that they have a "moral obligation" to stop such online bullying.

But do they also have a legal obligation? And what are the practical realities of trying to stop offensive comments being published on the internet?

The ATL teachers' union says it is ready to take legal action - and if a suitable test case arises it will support a teacher who appears to have been defamed or libelled.

The union says it will target the publishers of websites carrying offensive material, rather than the schoolchildren.


But it will mean entering into ambiguous legal territory.

Former chair of the Education Law Association, Nicholas Hancox, says it would be "difficult, but not impossible" for teachers to take their complaints into the courtroom.

It's no longer just chalking insults on a blackboard

But there are practical reasons why so far the anger over "cyberbullying" has not become a courtroom battle.

Not least of these would be the expense. While major corporations will be willing to risk the cost of a lengthy defence of their reputation, it will be a much tougher decision for an individual teacher or union, he suggests.

This could be further complicated by the international dimension - if website publishers are based overseas, with their only UK presence being a website.

It will also mean that the bullied teacher - whose reputation has been under attack - will have to face the publicity attached to such a case, a difficult prospect that could also limit the likelihood of a complaint reaching court.

In practice, Mr Hancox says that websites are also keen to take down any offending material, as soon as they are notified - which will show that they are acting responsibly when approached.

False statements

This might not be what teachers want to hear - when a succession of teachers' conferences have heard stories about the destructive impact of such anonymous online insults.

Is it possible to control what young people put on to websites?

Andy Brown, a teacher at Ballymena Academy, described a secondary teacher who had been pushed into early retirement by a "campaign of derogatory and false statements placed on a website".

"What about teachers who've had pictures taken and posted of them when they're socialising or have had comments questioning their fidelity to their partner?"

But head teachers are also cautious about expecting any easy answers.

Martin Ward of the Association of School and College Leaders says that although it's a serious problem - it might be something that teachers have to live with, rather than expect to stop.

"It's very difficult to control," he says. The heads' union has been consulted on the government's forthcoming guidelines on such cyberbullying - but Mr Ward says these won't include "any magic solutions, because there aren't any".

Secret recordings

Mr Ward says that when his union has threatened legal action against websites they have always removed any offending material - and that no test cases are in the pipeline.

But he says that technology is now creating a number of difficulties for schools.

Pupils have made recordings of lessons using their mobile phones - which have then been used by parents in disputes with the school.

Parents have also made secret recordings of private meetings with teachers, says Mr Ward.

Among the cases cited by the ATL's Andy Brown was of a teacher who had had a picture of their face superimposed on a pornographic image.

And Mr Brown has also highlighted the difficulty in preventing "innuendo". Much damage could be caused by specific and subtle comments about teachers and their personal lives, he says.

'No bullying'

With so many social networking and video sharing websites becoming so popular among school-age youngsters, there are numerous outlets for putting personal grudges into the public domain - and Mr Ward is not optimistic about being able to stop such cyberbullying.

This is also an international problem. In Canada, pupils were recently suspended from school in a cyberbullying dispute - and teachers in Australia and New Zealand have challenged websites such as RateMyTeachers.

But the founder of RateMyTeachers, Michael Hussey, has robustly rejected teachers' criticism.

"For them to link our site with cyberbullying is ludicrous. They are trying to discredit what we are all about." And he says there is "no name calling, no bullying, certainly no threats".

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I was expelled for what were perceived as 'derogatory' insults on a website. I think it was justified, but I also think that teachers should bear up to scrutiny. Much of this targeted bullying is unfair - but some websites where students can 'rate their teachers' provide a useful insight into the overall view of a particular member of staff, justified or not.
Lucy, Buckinghamshire, England

As a student teacher, I have often come across incidences of cyberbulling - of teachers and of other pupils... All of the schools I have worked at have a zero-tolerance policy, and have dealt with (as far as I have been made aware) with such incidences in a fair, just and swift manner. So far, there have been no pictures of me floating round the net, but students (when specifically told not to) have taken photos of me without my permission on their mobile phones. With the support of our Head of Department and Class Teacher they were deleted from the students' phones. I have however, been subject to sexual harrassment from pupils, an issue which was taken seriously. My views are then that it is the responsibility of the school to protect their staff and students according to their code of practice. Going against the publishers of the website, whilst a sensible enough idea, only cures the symptoms. In order to truly tackle the issue, we need to look at the cause - the attitude and behaviour of the bullies themselves.
Gloriana, East Sussex

Odd, isn't it. If the BPI wants to chase file-sharers, it can quite easily trace computer users. If a teacher wants to find out who is posting defmatory material, it's "not possible". Hmmm.
Hayden Clark, Macclesfield

If you are aware that you are being attacked on a website- Ignore it! Don't go and visit the site...
Paul Adams, Belfast

Simple solution... hear me out before slamming it... licence logging on to the internet and the age at which you can get a licence. You wouldn't expect a minor to drive a car you would expect them to have lessons on how to use it first as well as have the maturity to know what they are doing, same goes with the internet. this would also alleviate a lot of the problems of people getting stung by conmen when they don't know what they are doing.
Kris, Somerset

It's surely a symptom, not a cause: as another poster said, it's all about a culture of discipline - and self-discipline. Enterprising kids will set up their own websites if necessary; they will come and go, and the 'best' content will spread around the world. That's the nature of the new media. Schools should be educating the next generation to live in such a world, not pretending it can be made to go away.
Phil Gale, Oxford

The problem is not the use of the internet. It's a lack of discipline. If I had done anything like what these children have done, I would have been caned at school (in Sri Lanka) and I would have been given hell at home. Let's focus on the lack of discipline here!
Khushil Dep, Letchworth

The problems come from a complete lack of respect and discipline, not only in the class room but at children's homes as well. A teacher could try there utmost to install respect to a pupil but if the child then returns home to a non caring 'anything goes' house then what hope is there?
Big Dave, Central Scotland

Why target the websites? Surely working with these websites to get information to help identify those responsible for cyber bullying and then punishing them is a more realistic and effective solution?
Dre, London

It's ridiculous that slander can take place online in this manner and not be addressed. I'd imagine it undermines the teachers position and authority greatly and thus damages the learning of other children. The hosting company of such sites should suspend them until the site author can justify their contents.
Jed Pearson, York

The strength of the internet is that anyone can publish anything. It gives a voice to people who would otherwise be voiceless and moves so quickly as a medium that it can't be constantly moderated and censored. 20 years ago pupils just drew cartoons of their teachers and this is just the natural progression of that. It shouldn't be censored no matter how unpalatable it is to the teacher. I fear the world where we can't speak our minds or vent our spleens, be it on the internet or anywhere else.
James Kay, Manchester

When I was at school in England in the mid seventies, our teachers were hard-working but disciplined. If we were lucky we'd get to learn their first name but God help us if we ever used it! Teachers were admired and respected. I think the trouble these days is that kids have way too much time on their hands. We would climb trees, build camps in the woods, play football ALL day and come home exhausted..there was no sitting behind a PC screen all weekend because there were no PCs and don't get me started on ADD/ADDH/ADHD (or whatever the name is this week), we had a cure for it when we were kids - a good old fashioned smack around the ear!
Paul Anderson, Laguna Hills, California

The answer seems simple. Don't allow mobile phones in schools.
David Jordan, Milton Keynes

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