Tackling Cyberbullying in the Digital Era

“It always felt like a safe place.” That’s how my husband described the school he attended in Marshall County, Kentucky. Now, it was the latest school to become the scene of a mass shooting.

As public school educators and parents, my husband and I had dreamed about one day sending our daughter off to Marshall County Public Schools, but after the shooting we found ourselves suddenly fearing what had always been a safe, shared vision.

At the same time, we were still wrestling with the raw emotions and unresolved aftermath of a spate of student suicides that hit nearby schools years earlier. I couldn’t help but think back to Bullitt East High, a school in another Kentucky district where we’d lived and where three teens had killed themselves within a year and a half. That loss of life rocked our entire community.

What we started to realize was that all three of the students who committed suicide at Bullitt and the school shooter in Marshall County had one thing in common — there was reason to believe they’d been cyberbullied.

Most of the time educators and parents don’t know what goes on behind students’ computer screens or mobile devices. All we have to go on is what they tell us. Proactively talking to kids about cyberbullying is, I think, the only way for parents and educators to figure out what’s really going on — and to get kids the help they may urgently need. It’s not always easy, but as these tragedies drove home for me and my husband, it’s critical. So here are three ways we can all begin doing our part:

Don’t start from scratch — there are great resources out there

There are many resources available to help kickstart the conversation about cyberbullying. NEA offers a number of helpful resources like the Bully Free It Starts With Me toolkit. And I highly suggest encouraging students to take NEA’s pledge to stand up for bullied students.

Another NEA-endorsed tool, and one of my favorites, is Common Sense Media’s Anti-Cyberbullying Toolkit for educators, Standing Up, Not Standing By. It provides unbiased info, trusted advice and innovative tools to help parents, educators and policymakers tackle digital citizenship.

Before using the tool with my students, I went through all of the videos and games to see what they were like. I tried to view them as if I were a student undergoing this education and I ended up learning quite a bit! Many of us educators and parents are not equipped with the vital information needed to empower students to deal with the struggles and challenges they face daily in this complex, ever-changing digital society. It made a huge difference both in educating myself and figuring out how to best teach these tough topics.

Push for digital citizenship in your curriculum

As educators we must figure out a way to make digital citizenship a core piece of every student’s education, just like math or science. We need to bring it to the forefront of education — we live in a digital world, and our schools should reflect that.

My way of coping with the tragedies in my community was to search for a solution. I decided to push for digital citizenship to be taught in our school system’s curriculum, and I have been working to make it a reality ever since.

Get involved in and outside of school, and help educate policymakers

I’m a library media specialist, and I found that principals, administrators and especially our legislators don’t know what should be expected of my role. They don’t know what it is that we do, or that we’re perfectly positioned to help curb cyberbullying by teaching digital citizenship. So I set out to change that.

I applied to be a member of every educational policymaking institution I could think of, whether at the local or state level. I was selected as a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner’s Teachers Advisory Council, where I am able to freely express my school safety concerns and advocate for a digital citizenship curriculum to the Commissioner and highly-effective teacher leaders across the state. I also participated in the KDE Teaching and Learning Pathways Research Writing Team to promote digital citizenship as it relates to providing support to our growing diverse student population. I became a more active member of the Kentucky Education Association, which gave me many opportunities to push for a digital citizenship curriculum to be adopted into KEA’s legislative platform.

This was my path — but you don’t have to be a library media specialist to start speaking up! Find a path that works for you, and take that first step.

School tragedies are happening all too often and the loss of life we’ve witnessed in Western Kentucky is far from unusual. Instead of accepting these events as our new normal, we need to learn from them and work to prevent them. No one solution will solve everything, but progress has to start somewhere. Finding anti-cyberbullying resources to educate our students, teaching digital citizenship in our classrooms and advocating to policymakers are all ways to help keep our schools safer. When it comes down to it, our students are at school to learn and that won’t happen if they don’t feel safe.

Christina Rodriguez

I am a National Board Certified teacher and library media specialist in Western Kentucky, previously an army brat from Fort Knox. I recently moved to Marshall County with my Husband and young daughter. I have experience teaching grades K through 12 and currently teach grades 5 and 4.