TX schools partner with Sandy Hook Promise to launch anonymous bullying reporting app

Students in Houston, Texas schools will soon have new, anonymous ways to report bullying, an effort spawned by a state law focused on fighting bullying online.

Texas lawmakers approved David’s Law last summer to ensure the state’s public schools “have the authority to address cyberbullying that occurs off-campus,” according to David’s Legacy Foundation.

The law requires schools to notify a bullying victim’s parents of an incident within three days, as well as the parents of the aggressor. The law gives schools the authority to expel students who encourage others to commit suicide, incites violence or releases indecent images of another student, and promotes mental health education and use of counselors to resolve student conflicts and bullying.

David’s Law also requires schools to include anonymous ways for students to report problems with bullies.

The Houston Independent School District is complying with a new tip line, website and mobile app that will allow students to report incidents of bullying without the stigma of going to the school office or approaching adults or police.

“The main thing is you’re providing students voice,” HISD’s head of student support services, Anvi Utter, told Houston Public Media.

“You’re providing them a safe place where they can talk about things that are happening at school, that’s outside of school,” Utter said. “And students will know that they’re being heard and that there’s going to be a response to this.”

HISD’s anonymous reporting system is provided by the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, created in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Connecticut in 2012. Utter believes that while the new approach will ultimately reduce bullying in schools, she suspects it will initially create more reports by allowing students to voice their concerns from the shadows.

“I actually think there’s going to be an increase in our bullying reporting because this is anonymous,” she said.

The system also reflects a unified approach – from lawmakers to counselors in schools – for dealing with students who prey on their classmates.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, notes in “The Tragedy of Moral Education in America”:

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.

To date, nearly 3 million people have taken the Sandy Hook Promise – “I promise to do all I can to protect children from gun violence by encouraging and supporting solutions that create safer, healthier homes, schools and communities.”

The national nonprofit offers a variety of programs and resources for educators and parents, from suicide prevention, to safety assessments and other guides to help prevent violence in schools and to reduce and eliminate harm to young people.


Principals fight ‘losing battle’ against negative influences of social media in schools

A new Education Week survey of principals across the United States shows many are struggling to control the negative impact of student social media use on the learning environment.

Principals report a growing number of social media sites – from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram to lesser known sites like WhatsApp, Kik and LINE – are complicating the fickle social relationships of teens and causing a steady stream of disruptions in schools, including nude photo scandals, shooting threats and cyberbullying, among others.

Students’ social media use outside of school is at least a moderate concern of 79 percent of principals overall, while 78 percent of middle school principals are “extremely concerned” about the issue. At the same time, 38 percent of principals told the education site they’re unsure where to find strategies to help students use social media responsibly.

Only 14 percent of principals contend they’re “very prepared” to broach the subject, while 45 percent said they’re “somewhat prepared” and 32 report saying they’re “a little prepared.” Ten percent are “not prepared at all.”

The situation puts principals in the position of working to control the fallout of social media issues that spill into the school day with no clear guidelines to follow. Many also have a limited understanding of the social media sites facilitating the conflicts, experts told Education Week.

“I think our expectations of principals have become increasingly unreasonable,” Amanda Lenhart, deputy director for the Washington think tank Better Life Lab at New America, told the news site. “They’re fighting a losing battle.”

It’s a battle that’s waged in what the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at The University of Virginia calls a “moral ecology” that includes many factors beyond their control.

Institute researchers examined character formation in a variety of different schools and outlined their findings in “The Content of Their Character,” edited by James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson.

“When social institutions – whether the family, peer relationships, youth organizations, the internet, religious congregations, entertainment, or popular culture – cluster together, they form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influences. None of these is morally neutral. Indeed, all social institutions rest upon distinctive ideals, beliefs, obligations, prohibitions, and commitments – many implicit and some explicit – and these are rooted in, and reinforced by, well-established social practices. Taken together, these form a ‘moral ecology,’” according to Hunter and Olson.

“Moral ecologies can vary by how coherent or incoherent they are, how thick or thin, how well-resourced or impoverished, how articulate or inarticulate, and the like. Character is invariably formed in these moral ecologies and is reflexive of them.”

The fact that school officials recognize the power of social media influences points to the importance of a moral ecology, yet many principals and parents feel powerless to control social media influences, likely because they’re rarely around when students navigate their virtual worlds.

The Virtue of Self-Mastery” and other lessons from the UK’s The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues can help students learn to limit their own technology and social media use by prompting them to think through how it impacts their lives and others before it’s too late.

Survey: Principals worried about student technology use at home, but embrace it in schools

Principals and school leaders across the country have mixed feelings about technology, with concerns about devices distracting students at home and optimism about personalized learning and computer science enhancing education at school.

A recent Education Week Research Center survey showed 95 percent of principals think their students are getting too much screen time at home, while 64 percent believe student screen time at school is about right.

Over half of principals – 55 percent – are also extremely concerned about social media use outside of school. Most are also at least moderately concerned about other issues like cyberbullying, sexting, social media at school, and students’ ability to gauge reliable information online.

“Technology, used wisely and appropriately, can be an excellent resource for learning,” James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes responsible technology use, told Education Week. “But there is also an arms race for our kids’ attention going on. It’s being led by certain tech companies, and there are really significant downsides. Principals need to understand that.”

The education site points out that most principals view the “computer science for all” movement in schools in a positive light, with 15 percent who believe it’s a “transformational way to improve public education,” 23 percent viewing it as a “promising idea,” and 28 percent reporting it as “one of many school improvement strategies available to me.” The vast majority also support technology driven personalized learning programs.

In some cases, principals are pinched between tech companies pushing more screen time and parents and teachers pushing for less.

“Notably, principals responding to the Education Week survey said they feel the most pressure from technology companies and vendors to increase student screen time (58 percent), embrace personalized learning (55 percent), and spread computer science education (47 percent),” the site reports.

Meanwhile, more principals report teachers are pushing for less screen time than those who claim teachers want students to use more technology at school.

The uneasy balancing act is something parents know well.

Research from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia shows many parents are struggling to control technology use at home, and they’re worried about the negative influences it’s having on their kids.

“Many parents feel their attempts to control the home environment and to keep external influences at bay are nearly futile in the face of new communication and entertainment technologies,” according to the Institute’s “Culture of American Families” report.

“These technologies introduce a host of unknown and often unwelcomed influences into the private space of the home. The overriding concern is the negative influence that parents are unable to keep out,” the report continues. “Many feel helpless in the face of these technologies and uncertain about how, or if, to limit them.”

Fortunately, the UK’s The Jubilee Centre and other organizations offer lessons to help parents, teachers and principals guide students to develop appropriate and healthy relationships with technology.

The Jubilee Centre lesson, “Using Technology More Wisely,” for example, encourages students to reflect on whether social media and mobile technology are good or bad for them personally, for their relationships and society.


Bullying, suicide, substance abuse biggest problems plaguing Idaho youth

A 2017 survey of Idaho high school students lists bullying, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts—issues strongly affected by character—as the top problems plaguing the state’s youth.

“Those have always been top issues,” Post Falls School District Superintendent Jerry Keane told the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. “However, they seem to be even more difficult for students to deal with as the world gets more and more complicated. The bullying of young people over social media is definitely a new age problem that is a challenge for parents, law enforcement, and schools to eliminate.”

The Idaho Department of Education’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey questioned 1,818 students in 9th through 12th grade about a variety of issues in six categories; violent behavior, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, sexual behaviors that lead to diseases and unintended pregnancy, unhealthy dietary behaviors, and inadequate physical activity. The survey was developed by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in four Idaho high schoolers said they’ve been bullied at school, and about 20 percent reported bullying online. Students who claim to have considered suicide in the last year increased to a 10-year high of 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students admitted to taking prescription drugs that didn’t belong to them, according to the news site.

Other problems seem to be on the decline, including underage smoking, and riding in a vehicle with someone under the influence. High percentages of students also feel confident they can find an adult at school to confide in, and 78 percent said they plan to continue their education after high school.

“Most kids have the ability to control items that hurt their body and mind like drinking, fighting, having sex, using tobacco, and accepting being hit,” Northwest Expedition Academy Principal Bill Rutherford told the Press. “These have all decreased due to public awareness and education in school. But, things that are being done to kids are increasing such as bullying, and electronic bullying which is creating this sense of helplessness in kids. Most kids are doing the right thing and making good choices but are still being bullied physically and cyberly, which creates a sense of helplessness, sadness, and causes students to become less healthy and overweight, and have suicide ideation.”

Northwest Expedition Academy, Post Falls Schools and nearby Cour d’Alene schools all incorporate strategies to help identify students in trouble, to encourage troubled students to seek help, and to discourage bullying.

Coer d’Alene schools spokesman Scott Maben pointed to the district’s suicide prevention program “Question, Persuade, Refer” (QPR).

“QPR saves lives by providing these ‘first responders’ with innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training, and the knowledge that the signs of crisis are all around us,” Maben said. “We also have held training opportunities for parents and community members. We conduct suicide risk-assessment training every other year.”

“Reading this study, our job is to focus as hard on bullying as we have on tobacco, texting while driving, and alcohol use. This study shows that schools and parents have the power to overcome this sizable issue—if they work together,” Rutherford said.

Working together as a community by engaging parents and local leaders is also key to developing strong character education programs that help to prevent bullying and other risky behaviors by persuading students to think beyond themselves.

“For parents and other adults, the task of ‘saving our children’ means, in large part, telling children what they are being saved for. The task of educating children means teaching them the larger designs that could give form and focus to their individual aspirations, so they can come to understand not only how to be good but why,” James Davison Hunter, sociologist and founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.

One lesson from the Jubilee Centre, for example, encourages students to pretend to look back on their lives 80 years from now, and to imagine how they want the influences of pleasure, wealth, status, power, knowledge, and ethics to shape their life.

Anarchy and anonymity: new study finds reasons for cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a major source of concern to many parents, but research is lagging behind reality. As Dr. Tom Harrison of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values observes in a recent article, “Research into the impact of the Internet on children and young peoples’ morality has struggled to keep up with technology’s rapid development and innovation.” Harrison’s exhaustive research intends not only to understand cyberbullying, but to bring research up to speed with present events.

“Interpretations oscillate between extremes,” Harrison writes. “Young people online are depicted as either predominantly truthful or dishonest, compassionate or callous, selfless or selfish, altruistic or egotistical, courageous or cowardly, or as modest or vain. What is clear is that the Internet appears to influence young people in a number of complex ways, and that it is not obvious if such influence is predominantly positive or negative. The only common ground in the literature is a broad agreement that the Internet is, in some way, having an effect on the morality of children and young people.”

Harrison’s research, done in interviews with groups of respondents, discovers two reasons why young adults engage in cyberbullying. “One is that they don’t believe there are any rules on the internet. Said one respondent, ‘I don’t know anyone who follows rules on the Internet, I don’t even know where they are.’ Many of the participants identified an increased sense of freedom from restrictions as one of the biggest differences between their online and offline lives . . . A distinction was drawn between schools, which are ‘full of rules’ and the Internet, which is a ‘free for all.’ One participant stated ‘There are rules at school about no bullying, no fighting. The teachers sort this out. They don’t online.'”

Secondly, participants in Harrison’s study observe that on the internet they and their peers are able to not just be anonymous, but assume new identities. “Some people use the Internet to reinvent themselves to be like a completely new person,” said a student. “But it can actually lead to cyberbullying, what they say behind screens might be different to what they say to your face.” Cyberbullies therefore disassociate themselves from their actions. “Many interviewees,” reports Harrison, “cited examples of people they knew who acted differently online deciding to adopt a different Internet lifestyle and identity. If young people believe they cannot be found out, and that what they do online cannot be traced to other social dimensions of their lives, they are more likely to act in socially dislocated ways.”

“The new opportunities that the Internet has opened up for young people require them more than ever to ‘do the right thing,'” Harrison concludes, “not so much motivated by rules, duties or consequences (since these may not always be explicit), but by having the character to choose wisely between alternatives. An important question to ask in future research is how best to educate digitally virtuous citizens to help them make good and wise decisions.”

UK research reveals cyberbullying plague, highlights character education as solution

A recent study by the British think tank Demos reveals some eye-opening statistics about cyberbullying, an increasing trend that many believe is driven by new technologies and an erosion of character and morality among teens, which can be resisted through intentional character-formation lessons and technology use.

Demos surveyed 668 students aged 16–18 through Facebook, held focus groups with dozens the same age in Birmingham and London (UK), analyzed trolling attacks on Twitter, and convened a roundtable with teachers and other experts who work with youth.

The London-based think tank released the findings from its nine-month project on Monday.

The research finds 26 percent of those surveyed have “bullied or insulted someone else” online, and 15 percent have “joined in with other people to ‘troll’ a celebrity or public figure,” while 88 percent reported they have offered emotional support to someone targeted by bullies online.

A whopping 93 percent of those who bullied or insulted others online had themselves faced similar treatment, according to the study.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem that many parents cited in the “Culture of American Families Interview Report,” complied by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

“Parents make a direct link between media technologies and bullying, and their main concern is that various new mediums—namely, social media and cell phones—facilitate inappropriate interactions between peers,” according to the report.

“Something about these forms of communication encourages uncivil, negative, mean, and caustic exchanges. Parents feel the technologies also give kids constant access to each other; there is no place to hide.

“While bullying is not new, a bullied child used to just have to make it through the school day, but could find safety from the enemy when he or she returned home,” the report states. “No such safe place exists anymore.”

Demos argues that the troubling situation on both sides of the Atlantic points to a real need for more character education in schools.

“Demos research finds that young people’s character—or the personal traits, values, and skills that guide individual conduct—may be significant in determining the extent to which they engage in positive or negative behaviors online,” the think tank reports.

“Young people who admit to engaging in risky or unethical behavior online are, for example, found to demonstrate lower levels of moral sensitivity to others, and have lower self-reported character strengths,” according to the Demos findings.

“Certain traits such as empathy, self-control and ‘civic mindedness,’ seem particularly closely linked to different types of behavior,” Demos reports. “Those with higher levels of empathy and self-control exhibit reduced likelihood of engaging in bullying over social media, while those with high levels of ‘civic mindedness’ are more likely to post about political or social issues.”

The think tank gave several suggestions for addressing the issue, centered on bolstering education about character and citizenship.

“Schools should look to deliver Digital Citizenship education which contains a strong emphasis on moral implications of online social networking, with a focus on participatory approaches which seek to develop students’ moral and ethical sensitivity.”

Demos also offers recommendations for social media companies like Facebook.

“Facebook, and other social media providers, should work with youth charities and digital citizenship campaigns to develop effective ways of disseminating information that supports good character online,” Demos suggests.

“Social media providers should use Corporate Social Responsibility budgets to provide financial and technical support for research into ‘what works’ in promoting healthy youth engagement with social media.”

State police speak out on bullying

PAW PAW, Mich. – Michigan State Police are reaching out to students and parents to combat bullies both online and in schools, a persistent problem research suggests could be addressed through a stronger focus on character education.

Parents raising concerns about bullying in Kalamazoo schools over the last month prompted the Michigan State Police to speak out on the subject, and offer parents and students advice on how to respond to the harassment.

“They say 71 percent of students have seen bullying while they were in school, so it’s quite frequent for students to see it happen,” Paw Paw Post Sgt. Andrew Jeffrey told WWMT. “Roughly 25 percent of students who have been bullied never even tell an adult that they’re being bullied. It’s very important that you let somebody know what’s going on.”

Jeffrey suggested students not respond with anger or physical attacks, but rather “act brave” and walk away when they’re targeted by bullies. MSP encourages students to talk about incidents with friends and adults, and to speak up if they see others under attack.

He also spoke about online harassment, and told WWMT state police have authority to investigate cyber bullying.

“Bullying does not have to be face to face. It can be behind people’s backs, like spreading rumors and things like that especially on the internet,” Jeffrey said. “A phone is also a computer, so if you’re using that you’re also using a computer which can potentially be a crime.”

University of Birmingham education researcher Tom Harrison studied the intersection of bullying and technology for “Virtuous reality: moral theory and research into cyber-bullying,” published in Ethics and Information Technology.

Harrison’s team interviewed 60 11–14-year olds from six schools in England about bullying online, and “themes emerging from the interviews included anonymity; the absence of rules, monitoring and guidance, and the challenges associated with determining the consequences of online actions,” he wrote.

“The new opportunities that the Internet has opened up for young people require them more than ever to ‘do the right thing’; not so much motivated by rules, duties or consequences (since these may not always be explicit), but by having the character to choose wisely between alternatives,” according to Harrison.

The situation not only calls for ways students can handle bullying once it occurs, but also a strong character foundation to prevent it from occurring to begin with.

Schools should focus on character education—public schools especially, using a virtue ethics approach highlighted in Harrison’s research—to change a school culture so that it defuses bullying and encourages the practice of virtuous habits of kindness, empathy, patience, and forgiveness.

The UK’s Jubilee Center provides resources for schools to create a framework for virtue ethics lessons, and they’re available free online.