Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Clicks and stones

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Cyber bullying is distressing for the victims but the perpetrators often don't realise that it also constitutes an offence. Schools need to make this clear, says Richard Bird.

Cyber bullying' sounds so 21st century. But it is no different in essentials from the traditional tactics of sniggering behind someone's back, namecalling or writing abusive graffiti.

Cyber bullies have a wide range of weapons to call on, from texts on mobile phones to websites set up specifically to attack someone.

The problem affects both young people and staff, and schools and colleges have a legal duty to protect both. Incidents may be student-onstudent, student-on-staff, parenton- staff or indeed staff-on-staff.

There is sometimes a sense of helplessness or reluctance to get involved but schools and colleges should follow the example of Dr Samuel Johnson: "Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me." The school/ college should itself act as an agent of the law and should encourage other agents of the law to play their part.

Apply sanctions

Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, schools have the power to regulate conduct outside school and to apply sanctions. If a cyber-crime may damage discipline, as in targeting a teacher, the school can act. Similarly, if cyber bullying affects a student in school, the school can act. It is important that the school makes these powers absolutely clear in its discipline code so that a parent or student cannot claim that there is a legitimate expectation that these actions are beyond the school's remit.

However, the criminal law also applies to cyberspace. Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 hacking is illegal. The penalty may either be a 500 fine or six months in jail, or an unlimited fine and ten years.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it an offence to pursue a course of conduct amounting to harassment, punishable by up to six years' imprisonment or a fine. Behaviour that causes alarm or distress is criminal harassment.

Under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 it is an offence to send a letter, email or other article that is "indecent, grossly offensive, or threatening with the intention of causing distress or anxiety". It is reinforced by the Communications Act 2003 which makes it an offence to "send by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character..." A person guilty of an offence is liable to imprisonment for a term of up to six months, a fine of up to 5,000 or both.

We are talking here of crimes which the law takes very seriously and schools and colleges need to make all this known to young people and parents. Not only does there need to be an anti-bullying component to ICT teaching, it also needs to be conveyed that all these actions are criminal.

Filming 'happy slapping' comes into this category. In the most extreme case a person went to jail for a considerable period of time for being an accessory to manslaughter for filming the assault alone.

Legal action

The police are there to investigate crime and heads of children's services should be encouraged to meet with chief police officers to ensure that the police locally take these crimes seriously.

Defamation action is another option and, like the Ritz Hotel, is open to everyone who has the money. But unlike the Ritz, it also gives the press the opportunity to publicise the defamatory statement. A website visited by a few disgruntled parents could become a national headline given the exposure of a court case.

Another consideration is lack of anonymity. In a case concerning Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, a judge ruled that because statements on a website set up to attack the directors of the club were defamatory, the identity of the perpetrator must be revealed.

In British law an internet service provider (ISP) is responsible for what is online. ISPs will take down any defamatory material once told of it. Schools need to have a list of contact numbers for providers.

Finally what about staff-on-staff? Like any bullying or harassment in the workplace, it has the potential to be at least misconduct, probably gross misconduct. Staff should be aware of this.

Schools and colleges have duties in relation to cyber bullying. With the support of the police, there are the powers to fulfil them.

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