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A helpline for schools tackling cyberbullying

Pilot program lets schools tap into a helpline with close ties to Twitter and Facebook

cyberbullying-socialWith a reported 55 percent of all teens on social media witnessing outright bullying via that medium, and with 95 percent of those youngsters who witnessed bullying on social media choosing to simply ignore the behavior, K-12 districts are growing increasingly concerned about the impact that such activities can have on their students.

This concern is warranted according to the advocacy site, which reports that just one of out of every six parents are even aware of the scope and intensity involved with cyber bullying and that the victims are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and to consider suicide as a result.

Anne Collier, founder and president of nonprofit Net Family News, wants to get K-12 districts in California — and eventually nationwide — involved with the anti-bullying movement as it pertains to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Collier, who is co-creator of the recently-launched, teamed up with #iCANHELP to develop a social media helpline for schools.

Currently being piloted in California, the helpline provides administrators, teachers, and school staff with help managing cyberbullying, sexting, or reputation-related problems that may surface at their schools. Available via email or a toll-free phone number, the helpline has gained in-kind and financial support from Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and The pilot’s largest chunk of financial support was provided by the Digital Trust Foundation, which funds projects that promote online privacy, safety, and security.

A tool for schools

According to Collier, the helpline is designed specifically for schools or districts (as opposed to individual students or parents) that, upon calling, are connected with either #iCANHELP’s Matt Soeth (who is currently managing the helpline) or Collier herself. “We know from the early volume levels of the U.K.-based helpline, which iCanHelpline was modeled after, that this will be enough [manpower] to manage the call volume,” she explains, noting that the phone number is not meant to be a replacement for emergency service.

“We help schools and districts resolve cases by talking to them within a 24-hour period or less, but these cases are meant to be worked thoughtfully.” That means reviewing the evidence across one or more social media platforms and deciding whether the activity violates the firm’s terms of service. If it does, then Collier and Soeth will request that the abusive content be removed from the site.

Collier, who serves on several safety advisory boards for household-name social media sites, says the premise behind the helpline is straightforward: schools call or email for help dealing with negative situations that happen in the social media realm, and whether the problem involves students, staff, educators, or district officials. She said the idea for the helpline came after 15 years of writing and research showed that if “we aren’t going to pay close attention to the research and policy-making, then maybe we’ll pay attention to the actual experience.”

“Policy making in this country around social media and youth has been driven more by fear than by research,” Collier points out. “It’s really time to ground policy making — be it at the school, community, state, or national level, in actual experience.” As part of the initiative, Collier plans to post peer-reviewed research and anonymous case studies in an online database that institutions can use to learn more about the cyberbullying issue and what they can do about it.

Positive Feedback

Calling the California helpline rollout “unprecedented” in the U.S. (other countries, she says, have had similar helplines operating for years), Collier said the initiative focuses on schools, law enforcement, social services, and other related organizations. “Just to start somewhere, we decided that the missing piece was in the school experience,” said Collier. “And since we’re based in California, which represents about 10 percent of the nation’s schools, we decided to start here.”

To get the word out to the state’s schools about this anti-bullying tool, Collier says the organization has been contacting institutions directly and leveraging its state DOE and law enforcement contacts. “We’re really working hard on the awareness piece right now, and reaching out to the 5,000 or so school administrators statewide,” said Collier. “I’m also working with the California PTA and talking to school resource officers and activity directors about our new initiative.”

So far, Collier says reception to the new idea has been positive. One proponent of the helpline is Patricia Agatston, Ph.D., a risk prevention specialist and co-author of “Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age.” Agatston said the helpline will be useful for educators who may not know where to turn for help when students come to them with social media-related issues. “Educators have so much on their plates already, so when these challenging social media issues pop up, it can be pretty overwhelming,” says Agatston. “And even though teachers get technology training, having a trusted, accessible source to turn to for cyberbullying and related problems can really make a difference.”

Agatston sees the helpline as a major improvement over the typical district stance on cyberbullying, which is basically to tell students or parents to report the problem to law enforcement and/or the social media platform itself. “Parents don’t always know how to do this, so giving the school a simple way to reach out and bring the problem to someone’s attention is a very good idea,” she said. “It will expedite the process.”

Going forward, Collier sees the helpline to be replicated across the U.S. as even more schools step up to the plate and play a role in resolving their students’ social media-related bullying challenges. Agatston also sees as being replicable across different states and useful for a wide swatch of both public and private K-12 schools. “Every state needs a resource like this,” she said. “I’d love to see it replicated and accessible to schools nationwide.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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