Bullying. This hurt that students experience has been around in many forms since the dawn of public education. It used to be evident: Schoolyard fights with obvious origins. The age-old boy who feels less love from home tries to make himself feel good by degrading someone else in the form of a fight. Parents and teachers handled bullies in many ways including, but not limited to, simply telling a student to stop the behavior or suggesting the victim stand up to the bully. Bullying occurred right in front of educators. The behavior could be seen and, therefore, presumably handled.

As the years went on, the concept evolved. Suddenly, bullying wasn’t so obvious anymore. Cyberbullying has become prominent as internet access has become more pervasive. Cyberbullying allows students to make statements they may think they’re not accountable for, because this world (on the internet) may be perceived as imaginary.

The pressures of cyberbullying occurring in real time while students are learning can cause great distraction to educators. The anxiety of the online world begins to creep into the classroom, and suddenly the student audience that appeared engaged is clearly in another world, worried about who they are as people.

I am the principal of Apalachee High School in Winder, GA. My staff and I work tirelessly to address cyberbullying and make a positive impact on the young men and women who attend our school. Here I share my insight on the issue of cyberbullying in hopes that some knowledge may be passed along as we fight this battle together as educators.

The Unique Role of Advisers

Whether you realize it or not, as an adviser you play a primary role in discovering and understanding what students are experiencing outside the classroom. Because advisers are leaders and choose to work with students in extracurricular activities, they know what students are going through and can address this in a proactive manner with the students participating in their programs.

“You truly get to know the students when you are spending more time outside the classroom with them. This develops healthy relationships,” says Amanda Pugh, SkillsUSA adviser at Apalachee High. SkillsUSA specifically focuses on workplace, personal, and technical skills. Because the primary goal of the program is to assist students with improving their personal skills in building self-confidence and supporting others, it is easy to address the negative impact of cyberbullying. Pugh focuses on teaching students the negative impact behavior on social media can have on postsecondary opportunities, such as college admissions and career readiness. She often takes time in her law class to show students case law on instances of cyberbullying as a way of addressing the situation proactively.

“I think being open and honest with students about the consequences and repercussions of risky behavior online is helpful,” says Jordan Bohannon, English teacher and National Student Council adviser at Apalachee High. The most significant moments come when students realize how dire the outcome can be and how heavy the law is relating to consequences. “I believe they know when something is inappropriate to post, but they don’t understand why or to what extent,” she says. Bohannon says that she believes online behavior is tied to levels of self-esteem.

Heather Sharpe, English teacher and NHS adviser at Apalachee, knows that NHS students face academic and social pressures, and it’s important to address those issues. “We need to bring about discussions of the human condition—the awareness that the struggles are various and real; no one is immune to them,” Sharpe says. “I share the story of a time I embarrassed my teenage daughter in public, unintentionally, because I was different. When we walked out, she was in tears because someone from school had seen me and made a face. I share how I felt like a horrible mother because people judged her because of me, and that struggle is real. Feeling judged can negatively impact a student’s ability to achieve.”

As advisers, it is critical to the role to be bold about student behaviors online. Because the adolescent population generally exhibits empathy when they are taught about the negative outcomes of online behavior, take the time to illustrate what can occur when students are not cognizant of their words and actions online.

To serve students fully and help them achieve academic success, school leaders should investigate when poor behaviors occur online. Because these behaviors impact the mental well-being of the student body, it is important to handle these reports with great care and dedication. It is much easier to hold the position “this conversation occurred off campus and not during the neat hours of 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and so we are not inclined to become involved.” However, when incidents go ignored, students suffer.

School administrators and counselors spend countless hours on cyberbullying cases attempting to determine where something may have started. The most important role we play is working with students in small groups when something negative occurs. Counseling students and building positive relationships are critical to the success of individual students and, often if the group of potential bullies can be identified, the root of the issue can be explored. In my experience, it is very often a misunderstanding. Once students see the negative impact their words have on others in a group setting, their empathy becomes apparent almost immediately and cases get resolved. Our role as leaders is to resolve concerns and issues so engaged learning can occur without the stress of comments that hurt the makeup of our students.

Spreading Positivity

If you’re looking for some inspiration on how to encourage messages of positivity throughout your school, seek wisdom from peers in the Adviser Online Community (https://community.nassp.org). Some schools choose to paint images of positivity in critical places, such as women’s restrooms. Given that cyberbullying occurs largely with females, this is a proactive way to deal with mental health and self-esteem.

Laura Mullen, NJHS adviser at Murphy Middle School in Texas, says that students “body shame and call each other derogatory names, commenting on supposed sexuality,” so her school painted images in a bathroom with words of encouragement like: “She believed she could, so she did,” and “Slay your own dragon,” along with, “Your time as a caterpillar has expired … your wings are ready.” She shares, “The response has been absolutely wonderful. We had numerous girls vying to paint a door and had to actually have an application process.”

This approach to cyberbullying addresses the issues head on and ties into the idea that cruelty online is linked to self-esteem. In addition, Murphy Middle School implemented a bullying box to encourage students to report when they see inappropriate behaviors online. In this way, the school has been able to navigate more difficult situations before they spiraled out of control.

This year at Apalachee High School, our focus has been on contributory behavior. The challenge to all teachers is to write every student a handwritten card about what that student contributes to our student body. Teachers are supposed to focus specifically on the behaviors exhibited by that student that cause our culture to stand out as positive and kind to self and others. When students receive this card, they are able to retrieve a T-shirt. The shirt has the school’s emblem with words defining positive people and the word “contributory” in the center. The top of the shirt has the word “PEACE” with our Apalachee “A” as the third letter. On the back, the shirt says, “One student at a time …”

Students have responded in such a positive manner when they receive the shirt. They are proud about why they received the shirt and are excited to share what they have contributed. At the time of this writing, our goal is for every student to have a shirt by the end of the first semester, December 2017. When we return from the holiday break, all students will report to the stadium and we will form the word “PEACE” and create a circle around our track. We want to illustrate to our community that we are family and we protect one another, promoting support and kindness to self. When this kindness to self is strong, we are able to be kind to those around us. This proactive approach to bullying appears to make an impact on behavior in the hallways, and it also illustrates how significant each student is to each teacher.

Staying Vigilant

The origin of all bullying remains the same: One person feels down about themselves and uses some platform to put others down. We used to be able to see it happen, but today it often happens with the identity of the bully being hidden. With vigilance, school administrators can track down the origin of cyberbullying attacks and illustrate to the student body how important it is to build strong relationships with one another and promote a school culture of trust and support. When teachers build relationships first and model the significance of slowing down to have a conversation with their students and with their colleagues, they are combatting negativity. This small act is not so small after all.

We are charged to teach our students far more than the content they need to move into the postsecondary world. We are charged with modeling kindness, compassion, empathy, and support. If students do not feel happy every day at school, they cannot focus on developing academically or socially. Educators have the esteemed position of making a significant impact on bullying behaviors simply by being good role models. Language and culture are the key ingredients to battling the cyberbully. We have to teach students how to talk to one another and build a culture focused on contribution.

Jennifer Martin is principal of Apalachee High School in Winder, GA.