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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
What can stop cyberbullying?
Schools are being advised by the government on how to tackle the "insidious" problem of cyberbullying. But what can really be done to stop the mis-use of technology in this way?

WHAT SCHOOLS SHOULD DO

Schools now have an official definition for what they're trying to stop: Cyberbullying is "the use of Information and communications technology, particularly mobile phones and the internet, deliberately to upset someone else".

Computer
Schools are told to keep evidence of online bullying

And they've been given guidelines on how to reduce the problem.

First of all, it says that pupils have to recognise the seriousness of the hurt caused by such bullying - and it wants pupils to realise that looking at or forwarding examples of cyberbullying makes the viewer part of the problem.

As such, these viewers should not be seen as "bystanders" but as "accessories", says the official advice.

Schools should have a designated senior member of staff to tackle cyberbullying - making sure that incidents are recorded and that there are up-to-date "acceptable use" policies governing how school computers can be used.

Evidence - such as abusive texts - should be kept for investigations and efforts should be taken to track down the culprit, who once caught should face the type of sanctions that would apply to physical bullying.

Schools have the power to confiscate mobile phones if they are being used in contravention of behaviour rules.

However, unless there is a specific provision in the school behaviour policy, staff do not have the legal right to search through mobile phone messages, such as to see whether an offensive message has been sent.

And head teachers can take action over material posted on websites or sent from mobiles outside of school - if it is seen to have an impact on school life.

The government guidance also says that some forms of cyberbullying can be classed as criminal offences - with the age of criminal responsibility starting at 10.

WHAT EXTRA TEACHERS WANT

There has been a broad welcome from teachers' unions for the advice on cyberbullying - but there have been calls for further action.

The NASUWT union wants pupils' mobile phones to be classed as "potentially offensive weapons" and to stop their use during school time.

It also calls for a change in the law to prevent teachers from "being named in allegations on websites".

And it wants to stop schools from expecting teachers to make available their personal mobile phone number or e-mail addresses.

But the anti-bullying charity, Beatbullying, says that it is against the call to keep mobiles out of school.

"Many parents want their children to carry a mobile phone for safety reasons... confiscating them is ridiculous," says the charity's spokesperson.

BLOCKING SOFTWARE

There is software being used in schools which monitors pupils' computer use.

This can keep an electronic watch for pupils using offensive language or visiting inappropriate websites - and acts as a deterrent so that pupils know that they are not acting without supervision.

This can track what individual pupils have been doing on their computers - and can provide screenshots as evidence.

But such systems will not apply to cyberbullying which originates outside of school - such as from mobile phones or from pupils' home computers.

LEGAL THREATS

Earlier this year the ATL teachers' union said it was ready to take legal action to support a teacher who appears to have been defamed or libelled in allegations on a website.

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

Chalks
It's no longer just chalking insults on a blackboard

A practical reason 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 cyberbullied 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.




SEE ALSO
Fight cyberbullies, schools told
21 Sep 07 |  Education
Cyberbullying: A victim's story
21 Sep 07 |  Education

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