The recent shootings at Red Lake High School have thrust school safety into the national spotlight yet again. But there’s a growing threat to student safety that is even more pervasive, more insidious, and less apt to be talked about in school communities than the physical security of school buildings: cyber bullying.

Because it crosses the line between school and home, cyber bullying is something that impacts both parents and educators. If you haven’t taken the time to set clear cyber bullying policies and discuss this threat with parents and other school stakeholders, you should do so now.

Like their more traditional counterparts, cyber bullies fill their need for power by hurting and humiliating their victims. The ultimate goal is to isolate and ostracize victims, separating them from their peers or social group.

Technology adds a cruel new dimension, however, as cyber bullies can harass their victims 24-7.

Protected and emboldened by anonymity, cyber bullies spew their hatred by spreading rumors and communicating threats via cell phone text messaging, eMail, blogs, chat rooms, and web sites.

Sadly, recent research shows that nearly half of all fourth- through eighth-grade students have experienced some form of online harassment.

Anyone who has tried to reassure a child or teen targeted by bullies at school knows that the psychological damage is often far worse–and longer lasting–than any physical hurt. When fear keeps young people from turning on their home computers, answering their cell phones, attending school, or leaving the house, cyber bullying might be to blame. By violating the sanctuary of the home, cyber attacks often feel very personal and can be particularly unnerving for students and parents.

Imagine finding sexually explicit photos of your 17-year-old daughter posted online by a former boyfriend–or having your 13-year-old voted one of his middle school’s fattest students. How do you comfort a 10-year-old who’s consistently excluded from all of her so-called friends’ “buddy lists” for instant messaging?

Whenever a student is victimized, learning suffers. When bullies aren’t held accountable for their cruelty, they damage school climate and learn dysfunctional behaviors that aren’t going to serve them well later in life.

As a result, many school leaders are developing specific policies to deal with cyber bullying, whether it takes place during the school day or after hours.

In many cases, cyber bullying is also a crime and should be reported to the police, especially when any kind of a threat is communicated or when a hate crime is committed.

Many educators also are helping parents identify warning signs–such as depression, mood swings, crying easily or without reason, trouble sleeping, nightmares, and social isolation–that might indicate a child is the victim of a cyber bully or cyber stalker. It’s important to take action whenever a child is threatened or victimized by a cyber bully, experts say.

Save and print out copies of each harassing or threatening message, and share them with school officials and the police.

You should also file a complaint with the internet service provider (ISP) or web site host and ask that the offending material is removed, although fake names and free eMail accounts can make it difficult to track cyber bullies effectively.

Parents can block specific screen names from their eMail and instant-messaging accounts. Keeping the family computer in the family room and monitoring children’s hours online also can help keep young people safe.

According to the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, parents may also sue the parents of a bully for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Students aren’t the only ones suffering at the hands of cyber bullies. More teachers are being victimized, too, as online harassment by disgruntled students and parents seems to be on the rise, according to news reports.

If teachers are threatened online, via eMail, or by text messaging, they should follow the same steps I outlined earlier in this column for parents.

For more information about cyber bullies, see the online resources listed below.

Links:

Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
http://www.csriu.org

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
http://www.missingkids.com

National Association of School Psychologists
http://www.nasponline.org

National Organization for Victim Assistance
http://www.trynova.org

Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osdfs/siteindex.html?src=oc

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.