Q&A: Mike Donlin

Cyberbullying is a serious challenge for school districts. Much of it goes on outside their networks, and yet it can profoundly impact students’ day-to-day lives.

Mike Donlin manages federal technology programs, and cyberbullying education and prevention efforts for the 47,000-student Seattle public schools.

He also represents the district in the Qwest Internet Safety Roundtable, a consortium set up by the telecommunications company to bring together law enforcement and school districts to work on Internet safety.

Donlin believes that the cyberbullying is an underestimated threat. He shares his thoughts on the subject with School CIO.

Q: What is cyberbullying?

A: Cyberbullying is using electronic means to bully, harass, and otherwise make life miserable for people.

It’s using information and communication technologies — cell phones, Webcams, computers, social networking sites, podcasts, any and all Web 2.0 technologies, that is, interactive aspects of blogging, Wikis, texting and IMing — to be cruel and harmful to others.

E-mail is still available and still used, but the younger generation e-mails less and less. And it’s more when they have to deal with older folks, and less so with each other.

Q: What are some examples of cyberbullying and electronic harassment that you have seen?

A: In one situation, a student here in Seattle was receiving mean and nasty messages over the telephone, which doesn’t sound too high-tech. But what the perpetrators had done was use the TTY system for the hearing-impaired, and the operator had to repeat the messages.

In another example, a young female teacher’s head was Photoshopped onto a nude body. The students were directed to the site by word-of-mouth and by messages on their own social networking sites.

Another example is the blog site that says, “So-and-so’s a bitch.” And other kids all add comments. And by that time the target has seen it, she doesn’t know who posted what and doesn’t know who her friends are because the kids are using fictitious names, and she’s devastated.

This kind of thing happens mainly to middle school kids but to older kids, too.

There’s a wide range. It could be anything from receiving an “I hate you” text message to electronically sent pornography to a message directing the target to look at a particular blog.

Another thing that can happen is that kids use each other’s sign-ins and passwords, and then behave inappropriately online.

Q: What do districts need to know about cyberbullying?

A: This is a bigger issue than predators. The issue of predators gets a lot of press, but the chances of kids being abducted following an Internet encounter are really pretty slim. That’s in part because of increased awareness of the danger.

Q: How common is it?

A: Surveys indicate that up to 50 percent of kids report having had some kind of “negative interaction” online.

Ten percent and upward of kids report having actually been bullied in some form electronically.

Q: How serious are the consequences to the targets?

A: In extreme cases, kids are actually killing themselves or each other over cyberbullying. The scary part is that this is happening in the land of the digital natives. The immigrants — that’s us older folks — very seldom hear about it.

Q: What are the challenges in fighting bullying in cyberspace?

A: Within districts, we’re required by law to have filters and firewalls in place. In the best of all possible worlds, nothing could get in or out that wasn’t okay. The catch is that savvy young kids can get around barriers.

The bigger challenge comes when stuff happens outside — when cyberbullying happens off-campus. That’s a major issue because people say, “It’s not my job, it’s not my problem.”

But very often the kids are carrying the technology in their pockets that allows them to harass and bully each other outside the school network. Oftentimes the stuff — PDAs, cell phones — is sitting in somebody’s pocket, or the harmful actions are done in school and then taken off campus and posted at home.

Then there are issues of the First Amendment and freedom of speech rights.

Q: Is Seattle taking any legal steps to address the problem?

A: Washington state legislation passed in April requires districts to include all forms of electronic harassment in their district anti-harassment policies.

In March, Seattle schools included cyberbullying in their district anti-harassment policy in anticipation of the state legislation.

Q: What else can districts do?

A: Make sure that filters and firewalls are up-to-date. That’s going to happen anyway, though. Realize that there are other things that you can do.

Be sure that policies and procedures are in place both at a district level and at a building level.

Make sure that parents and staff know the serious trouble that cyberbullying can cause.

Have close contact with the police and school resource officers.

Have staff — whether a counselor, principal, or someone else — able to investigate cyberbullying complaints.

Contact the parents of perpetrators and targets when problems arise.

Make students aware that there are people they can go to if they are targets or if they know of these instances.

If a kid comes to school and is covering up bruises, you don’t let the kid sit there. It’s a different medium, it’s a different century, it’s a different kind of abuse, but something’s going on — and those kids are going to have trouble functioning in school.

Q: What about training for district staff?

A: Training is critical. It shouldn’t be a one-shot thing.

Seattle provides training when requested, but it’s not required — and it should be.

There should be training for administrators so they understand their legal rights and responsibilities, and options. There should be training for teachers and all staff, and for parents.

And it has to move into the classroom so that kids are aware what cyberbullying is, and what they can do about it if they see it or if it happens to them.

Q: Where can districts direct parents to begin?

A: They could start with the Qwest online parent certification program, Incredible Internet, at http://www.incredibleinternet.com. It’s set up like a test but it’s really a teaching tool.

Q: What is the role of the Qwest consortium in dealing with cyberbullying?

A: The consortium isn’t focused specifically on cyberbullying but on the broader issues of Internet safety.

But there’s a subset of members who are working with other organizations and agencies to focus on cyberbullying, though.

The larger picture is to get like-minded people and agencies to share information and resources about cyberbullying.

Additional Resources

Links to the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

Research and background on policies and legal issues.

Qwest resource site — primarily for parents and other adults

Internet safety foundation that provides lesson plans for k-12 students.

A resource site for kids of all ages and for adults as well, with excellent video segments for secondary students.

Another site full of resources for educators, parents, and kids.

Dedicated to their son by the parents of Ryan Halligan, a teenager who committed suicide after being the target of cyberbullies.

A site on school bullying in general. Many links to articles about cyberbullying in other countries.