DESCRIPTION OF THE EXPERIENCE
Period and place in which the experience took place
Three third year English immersion classes. March 2011. Cyberbullying lasted around ten days.
Main actors involved (special focus on the profile of the student)
• The victims: a young girl of one of the three classes (who was a bit “hairy”), a teacher who is quite plain (notably his clothes).
• The harasser: a classmate of the victim who posted pictures on Facebook. He considered it was just a game, “for fun”, “a good joke”.
• The followers: 13 students out of 80. Those who “liked” or commented.
Herd instinct undoubtedly contributed. I “liked” because others did (sometimes without looking at what is liked)
Description of the factual events
Friday, the 11th of March 2011, early afternoon. A mother who is obviously chocked arrives at the reception desk and asks to speak to a person in charge. She informs the school that two pictures are shared on Facebook; one of a teacher turned into a Nazi and one of her daughter covered in hair (she has facial hair).
Those pictures have been on for several days but she fell apart when she saw the numbers of – sometimes close – friends who contributed. The date is important.
The next day, Saturday the 12th, the students leave on an immersion trip to England. The girl, the participating students and the “Nazified” teacher are in.
The girl is so chocked she wants to stop going to this school and refuses to take the trip, although it is important in this type of learning.
Actions carried out to identify the causes of the students difficulties
The psycho-medico-social centre organised reflection sessions with the students involved (collectively, or individually for those who preferred it). Those sessions helped the students express themselves, understand how serious their acts were.
Actions carried out to solve the situation and the problems encountered
• The people in charge reassured the mother and promised her to call her back late afternoon. The lower level headmaster investigated, consulted Facebook and printed the pictures and the signatures pages. A meeting with the management, the educator, the upper level discipline headmistress and the lower level discipline headmaster is organised right away.
• Since the facts are confirmed and serious, the school takes two sanctions:
- The student who posted the pictures will be expelled from the trip, is put on probation (called “disciplinary contract” in Belgium) for serious misconduct. He will be expelled for three days during the trip.
- The contributors are also put on probation for serious misconduct and will be expelled for one day after the trip.
- All those students will go to the psycho-medico-social centre and meet the discipline headmaster after the trip.
- The students’ parents are informed by phone and some of them meet the assistant headmistress and the discipline headmaster during the evening.
• The problem is solved in the late afternoon. The victim’s mother is informed of the decisions. The daughter will take trip to England.
• The assistant headmistress clarifies things before leaving to England.
• The pictures have been withdrawn from the site.
• The victim was followed by the social centre for a long period; her state varied between despondency and questioning the seriousness of the act.
Her attitude was not constant: when confronted to the other students she put things into perspective (to stay “good friends”) while in private she admitted she was hurt.
The psycho-medico-social centre helped the victim regain structure and the other students involved better understand the scope of the problem.
• The teacher who was targeted on Facebook was deeply hurt to be compared to a Nazi but still participated in the trip and kept teaching the three classes.
• The students involved were also followed by the Centre.
• The management gave the families of the bully and followers the disciplinary contract explaining the probation, the sanction, the rules, what change of attitude is expected from the students and the follow-up (the bully’s probation was extended the next year). It was signed by all the parties.
• The expulsion days were dedicated to fixing the wrong (apology letter to the victims, work on how to use Facebook and its dangers, work on respect...).
• The students of the three classes received a memorandum reminding the rules (respect, right to image...).
Support received by fellow students, colleagues, school management and parents
• The victim’s mother supported her daughter and contacted the school right away to solve the problem.
• The father of the student who published the pictures opposed the school’s logics. He put pressure on the victim, calling her mother and trying to make her feel guilty (the daughter should have understood that it was a joke, emotional blackmail with her girlfriends, risk of school problems for his son …) so that she withdraw her complaint. In his turn, he posted on Facebook telling his son he should not worry about the sanction because he would offer him a trip to the United States. His son stayed in the same school.
• “Under pressure”, the mother wanted to backpedal, minimising the consequences and reducing the facts to “teenage play”. After talking to the management and the headmaster who guaranteed “protection” for the daughter (the mother feared she might be rejected from the group), she regained some serenity.
• The other students’ parents reacted in two ways:
- Clear support to the school, parental strengthening (most parents).
- An attempt to negotiate from some of them. Could the probation threaten the students’ school success? Could not it be cancelled?
• By word of mouth, all the students of the school were quickly aware of the sanctions and had varied reactions.
• The teachers were not aware of the events. They did not realise the extent of the problem.
• The administration reacted quickly to solve the problem with the headmaster.
Strengths and weaknesses of the experience
Why this student and this teacher? Some “inelegant” hair, a plain teacher… For immersion students (the “super-option”), in a particularly shallow group of students where brands are used to judge people, these are the triggers…
However, in this experience, we are only at the limit of bullying: only one act (photos), on a short period (no more than 15 days.), a will to harm or a mere joke? …
It might be better to call it a major critical event.
• The quick reaction of the school (a few hours). The two victims needed their dignity back before the trip the next day, when all the actors would meet.
• The sanctions seem “tough” for the bully (deprived of the immersion trip) and the participants (one-day expulsion from the school) but are justified by the necessity to make an example.
• The bully was not definitively expelled. The school meant it to be educational: probation and days of expulsion dedicated to fixing the wrong.
• Two types of measures (sanction and support) were quickly and simultaneously taken, which limited the negative repercussions.
• All the teachers received a document explaining the dangers of Facebook.
• The parents received a memorandum on respect, right to image …
• This experience highlighted another problem: the guilty students did not understand. Yet, without understanding, a sanction is pointless. The school thus launched a reflection with the psycho-medico-social centre on prevention with young people.
• The three classes were isolated from the others, in a separate building. A self-centred microcosm was created, (vain, pretentious students who only value appearance …).
• The bully had no remorse. He did not understand what all the fuss was about. He only thought about his own pleasure, making a good joke.
• The followers reacted in two ways, notably due to the meetings with the psycho-medico-social centre: either remorse and awareness of the serious of the acts, or failure to understand what was wrong about their acts.
This raises a lot of questions. A few months later, during the next beginning of term celebration, a mother, who understood the sanction, told the discipline headmaster that her daughter, who had liked the publication, felt the sanction as an injustice.
Later, during an activity in which the discipline headmaster can be close to the students (extracurricular activity for 5th and 6th year students), the problem of Facebook was raised. During the discussions, it clearly appeared that for some students the girl had not understood Facebook well. For young people, Facebook is a virtual world that should not be taken seriously, except maybe when they are the victim…
Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you is losing relevance. Some students are astounded that others do not understand it is for play. How can one take Facebook seriously?
“Liking” on Facebook is for many young students their first “contract signature”. They do not realise the scope that we adults give it. Yet, sanctions are decided by adults. Moreover our society makes breaches of contract commonplace and gives less importance to one’s word given. But for the one who receives that signature right in the face, this signature and the person are a same thing. Wounds are inflicted to others by keyboard, you do not feel really concerned.
How to develop empathy in those who do not seem to have (“it’s just a game, it’s not serious”)?
• It is a pity that the document for the teachers and the memorandum for students were given after and not before the events.