Online Education Isn't Free From Bullying: Five Steps to Keep Students Safe

In recent months, bullying has receiving a lot of attention for several good reasons: 13-year-old Asher Brown, 13-year-old Megan Meier, 15-year-old Billy Lucas. These children committed suicide because they were bullied. But it's not just the behavior of middle school and high school students. College freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his college roommate posted a video online of Clementi with another male.

Though hazing and bullying used to be confined to the locker room, dorm room, or class room, technology has expanded the platform of abuse to cell phones and Web sites, a practice known as cyberbullying. One in five young people report they have experienced cyberbullying. The Anti-Discrimination League notes, "Cyberbullying messages can be circulated far and wide in an instant and are usually irrevocable; cyberbullying is ubiquitous--there is no refuge and victimization can be relentless; and cyberbullying is often anonymous and can rapidly swell as countless and unknown others join in on 'the fun.'"

Is Online Education Impervious to Bullying?

One visitor to a blog post about bullying commented, "At least with online education, bullying isn't in the realm of possibility." Though reports of bullying in online classrooms haven't yet surfaced, it is very much within the realm of possibility. Though at its surface online education might seem to insulate a student from others' harassment and bullying, modern online education technology supports a high degree of student-student and student-teacher interaction. Students are sometimes required to take place in online discussions and frequently use online education platforms to chat with students and professors. Though online students may not see what one another look like or what they're wearing, students often share their experiences as part of their coursework, just like in the regular classroom. And online education is only getting more popular.

Five Steps to Bully Prevention for Online Students

Even if you're personally unconcerned about harassment from other online students, you're a part of an education community. These five steps could help you or one of your fellow online classmates handle a potentially ugly situation.

  1. Be aware of what cyberbullying is and what constitutes harassment. With the recent media attention, more people are learning what these online behaviors look like. If you're not sure, do a little Googling and find out.
  2. Know what your school's policies are. In addition to federal and state laws, your school may have its own bullying and anti-harassment policies.
  3. Develop a relationship with a professor or trusted school official. It'll be easier for you to report another student's behavior or concern if you already have an established relationship with someone at your school.
  4. Speak up. Either in defense of yourself or another student, don't be afraid to express your concern about another online student's behavior, whether directly to that student, the class instructor, or another school official.
  5. Be proactive and escalate an issue when appropriate. If pointing out inappropriate behavior directly to someone doesn't stop the behavior, don't be discouraged. You may need to push the issue to get resolution.

Colleges and Universities Should Protect Students from Bullying

The Department of Education recently sent a letter to thousands of schools, including colleges and universities, to guide educators in combating bullying and to remind them that some bullying constitutes a civil rights violation. The letter outlines a school's legal obligations to its students to protect them against various kinds of harassment, including racial, disability, gender-based, and sexual harassment. "Although this letter focuses on the elementary and secondary school context, the legal principles also apply to post-secondary institutions covered by the laws and regulations enforced by the [Office of Civil Rights]," the letter stated.

At all levels of education, student-on-student harassment can negatively impact academic performance, cause absenteeism, and result in emotional and physical health problems for students.

The regular classroom shouldn't be the only college classroom where the education community needs to be proactive to prevent bullying. If you're considering an online degree program, know that it is your school's responsibility to address bullying and harassment, regardless of the format in which your education is delivered. It's also your responsibility as a member of that online community to know the signs of student-on-student harassment and to support your fellow students.

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