Should schools be the front line against cyberbullying?

– by Lara Murray –  employment law specialist

The tragic death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith, who committed suicide after suffering taunts from ‘trolls’ on a popular social networking website, has once again thrust the subject of cyberbullying into the news.

Cyberbullying is a relatively new problem, having grown with the development of technology. While cyberbullying can take place through email or text messages, the increasing popularity of social media has enabled bullies to target their victims anonymously, but in what is effectively a public forum.

Following Hannah’s death, there were calls for the social networking site in question, ask.fm, to be shut down, while others have called for social media companies in general to crack down on cyberbullying.

However, a more productive approach may be to tackle the behaviour of young people when they are online. This is where schools can play a key role.

While all schools have (or at least, should have) anti-bullying policies in place, these do not usually extend beyond the actions of youngsters on school premises. However, schools can and should take a greater interest in what their pupils are doing online.

A good starting point would be for schools to update their behavioural policies to include measures relating to social media, including the right to monitor what their pupils are doing online. This would enable schools to detect and identify behaviour which might constitute or lead to cyberbullying – even if this behaviour takes place in pupils’ own time.

Schools could also make a point of regularly reinforcing the message that cyberbullying will not be tolerated and will be dealt with in the same way as physical, verbal or psychological bullying which takes place on school property within school hours.

For many schools, making changes to a long-standing behavioural policy may seem a daunting prospect, which is why it makes sense to seek legal advice. At Palmers, we can help schools review their existing policies and implement new procedures where necessary.

Equally, we are also able to advise businesses outside of the education sector on how they can tighten up their own anti-bullying and social media policies, to ensure that they are equipped to tackle unacceptable online behaviour of their employees, whether that be towards their employer or their colleagues.

Lara Murray is an associate solicitor at Palmers Solicitors, in Basildon, specialising in employment law. She is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association and can assist businesses in relation to all employment law matters, including bullying, disciplinary and grievance procedures and social media policies. For further information, please contact Lara on 01268 240000 or email lmurray@palmerslaw.co.uk