Bridget Roberts-Pittman is associate professor of counseling at Indiana State University. Julie Slavens is a staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards. Brad Balch is professor of educational leadership and dean emeritus of the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.
Rebecca Sedwick, Holly Grogan, Megan Meier, and Ryan Halligan are only a few of the names of teens that have committed suicide in the last few years. While their stories reached the attention of national media, many more young lives are lost too early. News media frequently portray a direct link between bullying and suicide, yet the research indicates that teen suicide is a highly complex matter, which is why it is critically important that educators and leaders working with school-age children have accurate information. Only with accurate data can educators effectively intervene at the much-needed level of advocacy, policy, intervention and prevention. The importance of a safe teaching and learning environment cannot be overstated.
Considered an act of aggression done in order to intentionally hurt another, bullying has been a focus of much research in the K-12 environment in the last few decades. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers definitions of bullying and cyberbullying. Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children, that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Children who are bullied and those who bully others may have serious, lasting problems,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the website www.stopbullying.gov. The department further defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”
Another term found in the literature is “electronic aggression.” Electronic aggression has been defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “any type of harassment or bullying that occurs through e-mail, a chat room, instant messaging, a website (including blogs), or text messaging.” Technology includes devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers and tablets as well as communication tools including social media sites, text messages, chat and websites. Cyberbullying and electronic aggression have received a great deal of attention in scholarly research and from national media.
Such behavior in all forms can have serious consequences for young people, other than on academic success. The most severe of these consequences is when young people take their own lives.
Suicide is a complicated picture. According to the CDC in 2014, suicide ranked third in terms of cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24 with the top three methods of suicide being the use of firearms (45 percent), suffocation (40 percent) and poisoning (8 percent). In addition, in a study of ninth- through 12th-graders, 16 percent reportedly had considered suicide, 13 percent had created a suicide plan, and 8 percent had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.
Nearly one in three students ages from 12 to 18 report some form of bullying in the school setting while one in five students report being cyberbullied through electronic devices. Contrary to media claims, prevalence rates of bullying and cyberbullying have remained essentially unchanged. In other words, despite multiple repeated intervention efforts, a dramatic decrease in bullying behaviors in any form has not been achieved.
In a 2013 study conducted by the CDC, researchers indicated that nearly 20 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported experiencing bullying. Relative to cyberbullying, in a study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center ( www.cyberbullying.us), 24 percent of middle and high school students reported being cyberbullied at some time in their lifetime, with 8 percent stating it had occurred within the last 30 days.
Bullying vs. cyberbullying
The suicide of a student at Louisville Male High School in Kentucky brought to the forefront the role of social media in the lives of young people and that educators must place great importance on social media. According to an April, 2014 article in Education Week, the Louisville student had posted a suicide note on YouTube before she committed suicide. While media and others may use such terms less discriminatingly, there remain some key differences between bullying and cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying does have commonalities with traditional bullying (i.e., use of power, harmful intent); however, some distinct and important differences are present. The first is the concept of power. Power in cyberspace is not measured by physical size or family income. Instead, power lies in the anonymity that is possible with cyber communication. If using a false name, a cyberbully can go undetected. Similarly, cyber communication can be difficult, although not impossible, to track and trace. Further, cyberbullying, with the use of a computer or cell phone, can occur anytime. Finally, cyberbullies are able to reach a wide audience very quickly.
Bullying is a complicated phenomenon and occurs within many social systems. Suicide is a complicated phenomenon with its own set of risk factors, protective factors, social influences and individual differences. Putting them together suggests that the relationship between bullying and suicide is also challenging and complex. While there may be a relational link, to say that the relationship is a causal one is not yet known. Much more research is needed in this area.
As stated in 2013 by Justin Patchin from the Cyberbullying Research Center, “I think it is just as important to remember that as inappropriate as it is to assert that ‘bullying causes suicide,’ it is perhaps equally incorrect to say that ‘bullying does not cause suicide.’ The frank truth is that we really don’t know.”
According to www.stopbullying.gov, four important points exist:
• Bullying may lead to thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are risk factors for suicide (i.e., feelings of rejection and exclusion, behaviors such as isolation and withdrawal)
• Many teens are victims of bullying; however, the vast majority of them do not become suicidal.
• Suicide is complex and teens that commit suicide had many risk factors
• Some teens are at higher risk for suicide.
It is important for parents, educators, administrators, and members of communities at large to remember that while some teens commit suicide, the great majority do not. Media have portrayed a causal relationship in some cases and the reality is that bullying was one of many factors that led a teen to make that decision.
Individual differences refer to the unique set of traits, talents and skills each person possesses. Individual differences can place someone at a higher or lower risk for committing suicide. For adults in the lives of today’s youth, it is most important to obtain information and use it in ways that is supportive, helpful and nurturing. The days are gone in which “bullying is something to learn to live with” as if it was a rite of passage. Many teens do not come forward about their experiences as victims of bullies, or about their darkest thoughts, for fear of how it will be received or if it will be received at all. Caring and compassionate adults who demonstrate a plan of action represent a key part of the intervention efforts.
Before the current, explosive age of technology, students who engaged in bullying behavior at school, on school grounds or at school activities were disciplined by school administrators for violating student misconduct rules. With the advent of and round-the-clock access to technology devices, cyberbullying increased at a rapid pace. As a result, some states have passed laws addressing the ability of school administrators to discipline students for bullying and cyberbullying conducted during non-school hours and off school property because these behaviors ultimately impact educational functions.
School administrators should be sure their school’s student discipline or misconduct rules contain provisions prohibiting such activity and clearly stating what conduct will be considered violations. These rules need to be enforced on a consistent basis and all reports of bullying activity must be taken seriously and investigated promptly so that students understand bullying is a serious offense and will be taken seriously by the school’s administration. The investigation may not result in a severe discipline action such as suspension or expulsion, but some action should be taken against a student who has engaged in bullying activity.
School administrators in most states also have statutory or legal authority to impose alternative discipline measures that are less severe than suspension or expulsion but can be effective in addressing the underlying problems causing the bullying, and in stopping the behavior altogether. These alternative measures include requiring counseling, rearranging class schedules, assigning additional work, restricting attendance at or participation in extracurricular activities, assigning an alternative course of study, school or program, and/or referral to the juvenile court system.
States that have not passed specific statutes addressing bullying or cyberbullying may have other laws allowing school administrators to address or discipline students for such actions. Some states have laws that allow school administrators to discipline students for unlawful activity engaged in by students during off-school hours and off of school grounds. The unlawful activity does not necessarily have to be criminal activity but may be a civil wrong such as defamation or harassment.
The unlawful activity of the student must have a nexus back to the school setting, such as the activity creates a risk of harm to other students, teachers or staff members while they are at school, or it cause an interference with the educational function of the school. Under the latter criteria, there must be an actual interference and not a perceived or an anticipated interference in order to discipline the student under this type of state law.
School officials must also keep in mind students have free speech rights and they cannot violate such rights by disciplining a student for engaging in a protected speech activity. The vast majority of speech made in bullying or cyberbullying behavior generally will not be protected speech. The key issue will, again, be whether persons are at risk of harm when at school or the bully’s behavior causes interference with the educational function of the school. State laws should be reviewed to determine the authority of school administrators in that state to discipline students for cyberbullying that takes place during non-school hours and off school grounds.
Is disciplining the bully the only action with which school administrators should be concerned? The answer is clearly “No.” School officials need to keep in mind that all students are affected by bullying, including the bully. Many state laws that prohibit bullying and/or mandate discipline of students who engage in bullying also require schools to provide educational and preventative programs on bullying to students, school staff members (not just classroom teachers) and parents. Implementing these programs for each of these school community groups provides an opportunity to create a safe environment for students. Many states and federal law require safe use of the Internet curriculum to be taught at all or most grade levels beginning at the elementary level. This curriculum should address issues surrounding cyberbullying, such as how to recognize it, report it and not engage in it.
School boards should adopt policies (see sidebar, page 7) to address not only the student discipline issues surrounding bullying and cyberbullying, but also the reporting of such activity especially when it occurs off of school grounds and/or during non-school hours. While a school may not always be able to discipline a student for such action, it can provide counseling and/or intervention programs to help prevent future activity. Programs that address the well-being of the victim, and the bully while at school can be provided through collaboration with other community resources or through grants. Implementing such programs is another way for the school district to carry out its duty of care for students.
Bullying. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from Stopbullying.gov at http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html .
Cyberbullying . U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from Stopbullying.gov at http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/index.html
Cyberbullying Facts. (2014). Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved from http://cyberbullying.us/research/facts/
Education Week. (April 16, 2014). Louisville suicide highlights role of social media in schools’ crisis-response efforts. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2014/04/louisville_suicide_highlights_html?qs=Louisville
Jacobsen, K.E. & Bauman, S. (2007). Bullying in schools: School counselors’ responses to three types of bullying incidents. Professional School Counseling, 11, 1-8.
Hinjuda , S. & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Cyberbullying fact sheet: Identification, prevention, and response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying_Identification_Prevention_Response_Fact_Sheet.pdf
Kowalski, R.M., Giumetti, G.W., Schroeder, A.N., & Lattenner, M.R. (2014). Bullying in the digital age: A critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youth. Psychological Bulletin, 140(4), 1073-1137.
Patchin , J.W. (September 28, 2013.) Does bullying “cause” suicide? Retrieved from The Cyberbullying Research Center. http://cyberbullying.us/does-bullying-cause-suicide/
Robers , S., Zhang, J., & Truman, J. (2012). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2011 (NCES 2012-002/NCJ 236021). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Technology and youth: Protecting your child from electronic aggression. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ea-tipsheet-a.pdf
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 13, 2014. Retrieved from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6304.pdf.
Youth Suicide. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (January 9, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html.
Information for educators
A large body of information is available relative to bullying and a growing body relative to cyberbullying and suicide. The following links are offered as valuable links for school board members and educators.
Bullying and Cyberbullying Resources:
Bullying and Cyberbullying Programs:
Second Step and Steps to Respect: www.cfchildren.org/
Seattle Public School District: www.seattleschools.org/modules/cms/pages.phtml?sessionid=&pageid=217021
Resources for Suicide Prevention:
Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools: store.samhsa.gov/product/Preventing-Suicide-A-Toolkit-for-High-Schools/SMA12-4669
U.S. Surgeon General Call to Action: www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/reports/national-strategy-suicide-prevention/index.html
PRESS Online, IASB policy and procedure information and updating service, 7:290 Adolescent Suicide Awareness and Prevention Programs
Information from ISBE: