Wed June 04, 2014
Should schools do more to protect teachers from cyberbulling?
Research shows that a fifth of teachers have received online abuse from pupils or their parents.
"You are a paedo and your daughter is a whore"; "My son will fail now because of you"; "She is such a fat stupid cow who eats like a pig and her classroom stinks like her."
These comments were all posted on social media websites and forums and are part of an alarming trend in the online abuse of teachers. A survey of 7,000 NASUWT members revealed that as many as one in five had received offensive messages from parents, and even from pupils as young as seven.
The survey revealed that 40% of teachers who reported abuse to school management said no action was taken against pupils, and 55% said no action was taken against parents. When incidents were reported to the police, more than three-quarters of teachers said no action was taken. Teachers who hadn't reported abuse to their employer said that they were worried that their claims would not be taken seriously.
The most common platform for abuse is Facebook, followed by Rate My Teacher and Twitter. A small number of teachers have also received abuse through YouTube and Instagram.
Laura Higgins, helpline manager at the UK Safer Internet Centre, says this sort of bullying is almost considered part of what teachers have to put up with nowadays. "They shouldn't be in that position. People have always talked about teachers at the school gate or down the pub but now it's online as well."
In her experience, the vast majority of the abusive posts come from adults. Children tend to target teachers in other ways such as videoing them conducting an experiment and putting it on YouTube.
The Safer Internet Centre offers advice for teachers experiencing online bullying. On the morning the Guardian contacted the centre, one headteacher had been in touch after being attacked online by two parents, both of whom had been excluded from school premises for threatening behaviour. "Schools feel lost when it's parents writing things because you cannot give them detention," Higgins says.
The level of support varies wildly, she notes, adding that, because there are no statutory measures in place, every school deals with these issues differently.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates has also raised concerns about the lack of comprehensive guidance for schools, which has been "done away with" under the current government. She argues that schools need policies which prevent abuse, together with sanctions they can impose against parents and pupils who do abuse staff in this way.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers does offer some guidance, urging schools to incorporate cyberbullying into anti-bullying policies.
Nevertheless, 84% of headteachers would welcome greater clarification of legal responsibilities of schools in relation to cyberbullying, according to research by Noel Purdy, head of education studies at Stranmillis university college in Northern Ireland. Purdy adds that more examples of best practice would be welcome as schools should not be expected to deal with this issue on their own.
In many schools, according to Higgins, there is a lack of support because if the bullying is online, some managers don't see it as relevant or a "tangible problem". Keates says that some schools feel there is nothing they can do, while others worry about their reputation.
"Some schools discourage teachers from raising the issues," she says, adding that this happens particularly when homophobic comments are made about members of staff who are often told not to 'make a fuss'."
In a survey of 377 education professionals in 2011, 35% of respondents said they or a colleague had experienced online bullying, with 72% of cases were relating to pupils and just 26% to parents. But according to survey author Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in information technology at the University of Plymouth, it's hard to admit to online bullying because it can be damaging to a teacher's career.
Teachers should talk to senior management and governors if they are experiencing problems, Phippen says, and, if support is still not offered, they should go to the unions.
In the case of the headteacher who contacted Higgins, the school made the decision to write to all parents saying that it was aware people were talking on social media. The school also set up a private Facebook page to allow parents to continue having conversations online but with the school involved. If content is threatening or unlawful legal action may be necessary. "Unions can be a good source of support in these issues," Higgins says.
Teachers can compile evidence of cyberbullying by taking screen shots and tracking everything that is said, she adds. Staff can find out what is written about them by signing up to Google Alerts or doing a search of their name and checking sites like Rate my Teacher. When you know what's out there then you can go about getting it removed, says Higgins.
While there is a perceived anonymity online, says Phippen, social media will respond quickly to reports and block abusive users. "It's a myth that there is no point in reporting things to Facebook," he says.
Tina (not her real name) was discussed online by pupils after telling a sixth former off for a nasty text he had sent to another student. Comments were made about her weight and a former pupil threatened to come to the school to have a row with her. Tina says that she felt violated, suffering sleepless nights and unable to eat or concentrate at work. "I had to teach a few of the students who had been part of the social network discussion about me. Something must be done in terms of sanctions against students who engage in this type of activity," she says.
"There isn't much general staff protection; a lot of the time schools are entirely reactive so they won't deal with an issue until it is raised by someone else," Phippen says. "We need to work to put a policy and practice into schools around this issue. There is a duty of care that should be acknowledged."
By Sarah Marsh, published in The Guardian, 21st May