By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Dave Villafana, Cupertino Education Association president, was surprised to see his face on MySpace hurling phony insults at an administrator.
When Calisa Holm's administrator entered her classroom at the end of the school day, the math teacher at Pacific Union Elementary School sensed something bad had happened. She soon learned unflattering comments about her had been posted on the Internet from an anonymous source. A person on a “rant” website said Holm was “mean” to students and a poor teacher, and something should be done about her. Readers were invited to post their own negative comments about Holm.
“I didn't know who was maligning my character,” recalls Holm, a member of the Teachers Association of Pacific Union. “There was no way to address that person. I was in a vulnerable position. I felt powerless to deal with the ugliness of the situation.”
Increasingly, teachers have been criticized, ridiculed and falsely portrayed on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and RateMyTeacher. It may constitute “cyberbullying,” which is defined as “harassing, mistreating or making fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices” by the Cyberbullying Research Center.
A 2006 National School Boards Association study reports that 26 percent of teachers and principals in the U.S. have been targeted. A 2011 study from Plymouth University in England reports that 35 percent of teachers surveyed in the United Kingdom said they or a colleague had been subjected to online abuse, ranging from postings on Facebook to campaigns of abuse on Twitter or other sites. The three most commonly cited forms were slanderous reviews on RateMyTeacher, Facebook “hate groups” that focus on a teacher, and nasty YouTube videos. The Plymouth survey found that 72 percent of cyberbullying was committed by students and 26 percent by parents.
Holm believes her attack came from a parent angry about homework. Shortly before the online rant, a parent took issue with her homework policy and sent her a rude note. Soon afterward, the family moved away.
“The words used were not junior high school words,” says Holm. “They were much too sophisticated.”
Internet abuse can devastate educators
Those who have been harassed online commonly feel depressed, sad, angry or frustrated, and sometimes they feel suicidal, says Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center, based in Wisconsin. Student targets he has interviewed said that they were afraid or reluctant to go to school, and he believes the same applies to teachers who have been targeted. One of the teachers in the Plymouth study admitted to having a nervous breakdown over the summer.
“It made me feel incredibly sad,” recounts Holm. “I felt like crying at times. I felt embarrassed.”
Obscene allegations by students on Facebook against two Santa Rosa Middle School teachers caused them to experience personal anguish and worry about their careers. The Santa Rosa Teachers Association members considered legal action, but decided not to pursue it.
“You do worry that your life could be destroyed,” says Kelly Kiech, a PE teacher.
Kiech learned that a student who was outwardly friendly to him in class was making up vicious rumors about him. He immediately went to his principal. The rumors had been sent to more than 600 of the student's Facebook friends. The principal called in the student's parents, who knew the allegations were unfounded. The student wrote a new post on Facebook saying she had “ruined a great man's reputation” and that she was sorry, but did not mention Kiech by name, which he had hoped for. The school suggested he let the matter drop.
Kiech is moving forward and trying to put the incident behind him. But it's difficult, he says, especially when his own children went online and saw the lies that had been posted.
Kiech later found obscene allegations about math teacher Brent Jackson, so he told his school colleague and the principal.
“It was very hurtful,” says Jackson. “I could have sued the family for damages, but I didn't want any more publicity — or to exacerbate the situation. But it definitely hurt my morale.”
Nan Cano feared for her life when a student created a “Hurt Cano” website targeting the former Agoura High School English teacher, now retired and an adjunct professor at California Lutheran University's Graduate School of Education. The student solicited ideas from others nationwide on ways to cause her harm — and responses ranged from spreading lies that she had sex with students to damaging her car.
An administrator knew about the website, colored in blood red, but did not inform her before the school day began. Alerted to its existence during the workday, Cano went online and promptly went into shock.
“I lost all composure,” says Cano, a former member of the Las Virgenes Educators Association. “I couldn't believe my administrator knew about this and then innocently let me go about my job.”
She took a week off and was assigned an armed guard upon her return. Police discovered the student behind the website and suspended him for the rest of the year. Although the district mishandled the situation at first, Cano says, administrators stood by her, and so did the union.
“I was devastated and went to therapy for a while,” says Cano. “The student returned to the campus the next year, and he was directed not to go near me. But I remained hypervigilant that year. I didn't go to concerts or school plays because I was afraid I would see him.”
Her decision to retire, says Cano, had nothing to do with that incident, and she left three years later on a happy note, maintaining her love of teaching until the end.
“Still, it's hard for me to talk about, even now,” she relates. “It was very, very damaging.”
Why an increase in cyberbullying?
“Mr. Villafana, is that really you on MySpace?”
When Miller Middle School math and social studies teacher Dave Villafana heard that question, he went online and found someone had used his picture to create a phony MySpace account. There was also a phony account set up for his administrator, and obscenities were being hurled between the two.
“The sites looked authentic,” he recalls. “Many kids assumed that we were actually doing it. I gave MySpace a call and the site was shut down immediately.”
Villafana, who is president of the Cupertino Education Association, believes teachers are constantly under attack in the media, so there is more tolerance for online bashing. It’s common, he says, for students to go to RateMyTeacher and post hurtful things. Some will get friends from another school to post negative ratings about a teacher they have never met. He knows of cases where parents unhappy over a child’s grade have made comments, pretending to be a student.
“Whenever I want a dose of humility, I'll go to that page,” Villafana says wryly.
Villafana believes that when school districts and the media put teacher evaluations online for the world to see, it exposes teachers to public humiliation and is also a form of cyberbullying.
“Think of what happened to Robert Ruelas in Los Angeles,” he says, referring to the teacher who committed suicide after the Los Angeles Times posted information online labeling the young and dedicated teacher as “ineffective” based solely on student test scores.
“Posting detrimental things online is very hurtful and has a strong impact on morale. Teachers dedicate their lives to students, and it's difficult when they are not respected. When they are targeted online, they feel lost and sad. We have to be aware of the hurt that can be created with the widespread use of the Internet.”
Nancy Willard of the Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet believes cyberbullying is on the rise because students feel powerless and oppressed.
“We are making a lot of students feel as though they are failures because of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind,” says Willard. “The backlash of cyberbullying may be partly because of that.”
The Cyberbullying Research Center reports that there is a strong relationship between school climate and cyberbullying incidents.
“A positive on-campus environment will go a long way in reducing the frequency of many problematic behaviors at school, including bullying and harassment,” notes Sameer Hinduja. “Teachers must demonstrate emotional support, a warm and caring atmosphere, a strong focus on academics and learning, and fostering a healthy self-esteem. In schools that seek to create and promote an atmosphere where certain conduct is not tolerated — by students and staff alike — students know what is appropriate and what is not.”
Is it legal to cyberbully teachers?
Cyber threats, such as Nan Cano received, are illegal and punishable by administrators and police. When allegations and insults are nonthreatening and do not substantially disrupt the learning environment, students are protected under freedom of speech.
California enacted a law in 2008 that allows schools to expel students who cyberbully their classmates or school personnel. Only three states have anti-bullying laws that protect teachers; and only four states have laws that include off-campus behaviors, although three states are considering such laws. For details, visit www.cyberbullying.us.
Under existing law, school districts can only discipline students if the attacks are likely to cause a “substantial disruption” in the school’s learning environment. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court left intact two lower court decisions that said schools could not discipline students who satirized their principals online. In those cases, Pennsylvania high school students created online profiles of principals suggesting one was a pedophile and another used illegal drugs and was gay. Neither of those cases was considered a “substantial disruption” in the learning environment. The Supreme Court let stand a ruling that allowed punishment of a student who harassed a classmate online.
Nancy Willard notes that previous rulings define a “substantial disruption” as something that jeopardizes school safety and interferes with students being able to receive an education. This leaves school districts unable to mete out punishment for cyberbullying of staff in many cases.
Schools may not always be able to suspend students who cyberbully teachers, but teachers can file lawsuits against students and their families. Grounds for lawsuits might include defamation of character, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or representation in a false light.
“All of these things take a long time to prove and a lot of money, and lawsuits will continue the dispute for a very long time,” says Willard, author of the soon-to-be published Cyber Savvy, Digital Safety and Civility. “Yes, you might win and prove your point that the student did something wrong, but is it worth it?”
For teachers who are harassed, it can be frustrating to see students go unpunished.
“There were no consequences,” says Kelly Kiech, the Santa Rosa teacher who had been the subject of obscene Facebook allegations. “The girl wasn't even suspended. There needs to be some kind of consequences, so kids will know that is not OK.”
What can be done?
Most cyberbullying is done anonymously, but it can be possible to find out who the culprit is using the process of elimination. For example, if there is a Facebook hate group for a teacher, says Nancy Willard, discern which “friends” are receiving the postings, and then see who, from that social group, is “missing.” That person is likely behind the online attacks.
“These are teenagers,” says Willard. “They leave a lot of digital footprints. Lots of students know who they are at school. And one of these students will be willing to confidentially tell the principal what is going on.”
Students often can’t be suspended, so Willard suggests that schools hold an “investigation” of the incident and also a “restorative intervention” between the teacher and student conducted by a neutral party, preferably a counselor or school psychologist from another campus. In this format, the student could talk about why he was angry at the teacher in the first place, and the teacher could tell the student how the cyberbullying incident hurt his feelings and affected his life. The goal, she says, is to mend the relationship, have the student be held accountable and then move forward.
“Punishment from a legal perspective can get a school district into trouble, but if we throw our hands up in the air and do nothing, that’s not good either,” she says.
David Hernandez, an anti-bullying trainer from CTA’s Community Outreach Department, believes perpetrators should be strongly encouraged — perhaps with parental help — to issue an apology both verbally and in writing to the teacher and perhaps the school community. Students could also be asked to issue a public apology at an anti-bullying assembly on campus or perform community service.
“It’s not going to erase what has happened, but at least it will make the student think about what they did,” says Hernandez. “And it will send a message to other kids that this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”