by John Fischetti, Summerville
Watson School of Education

Our experience with cyberbullying from a student we had never met has taught us lessons we thought we already knew. How can we protect ourselves and our on-line students from harassment? What can be done from a policy standpoint to insure that this type of situation does not occur again? Fortunately, the faculty member had policies in place which allowed her to remove the student before he could continue to do damage to the on-line course conversation.

Summerville (2004) describes the need for an on-line code of conduct. Since on-line students have a certain degree of anonymity, "improper student behavior is something that can have a tremendous impact on course satisfaction, willingness to take/teach another course and even on individual student course grades."

We have it found it necessary to create a course agreement and require a student's positive response to the conditions of the course as a prerequisite for continuation in the course. This course agreement was developed to insure that students were actually reading the on-line code of conduct and other policies necessary for participation in an on-line course (e.g. having a working computer with on-line capability at home). Within the course agreement, we strongly recommend including links to the academic conduct and/or professionalism policies at the college and university level. In addition, if your university has a user agreement for student email and web use, we urge that instructors provide a link to that information with pointers regarding the use of inappropriate language, threats or negative personal comments. Additionally, we recommend that faculty members encourage students to report immediately if they are being harassed by a classmate.

Since student email is inaccessible to the instructor, students should be encouraged to forward the offending message to the faculty member immediately. Then an instructor can determine the next steps to take based on course and university policies. In this era of identity fraud and easy access of housemates, roommates and significant others--who often share on-line resources and knowledge of passwords-it is important to confirm that the message you believe to be harassing or threatening is from the person you believe it to be from.

The bully is particularly problematic because of his or her potential to disrupt the work of other students. The bully can cast a pall over an entire class, often by combining negative comments with personal insults, threats, and harassment. Some bullies use derogatory or flippant language in discussions and postings that they would not use in live settings. Communications technology can enable this behavior, making students feel less pressure to moderate their self-presentation. Hostile interactions could derive in part from students who have anger management or substance abuse problems that are more freely expressed in the unstructured environment of the online class. After all, students can be online at any hour, in any mood, and under the influence of any drug or alcohol product (Summerville and Fischetti 2005).