Cyberbullying and Sexting: Q&A with a Youth Risk Online Expert

In a Q&A with AASA, Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, whose background includes risk prevention and law, gives important information for all school leaders about the challenges of cyberbullying and sexting. A link to specific resources for school leaders is at the end of the article.

AASA: What authority do school leaders have over incidents of cyberbullying and/or texting that occur out of school?

Nancy Willard: This is one of the most significant barriers faced by principals. It is imperative to recognize—and communicate to parents—that these off-campus situations involving students can lead to school violence, avoidance, failure and sometimes even suicide. Therefore, principals must have the authority to respond. 

A reasonable interpretation of the case law is that school officials have the authority to respond to off-campus speech if that speech has, or there are good reasons to believe it could, cause a substantial disruption at school or interference with the rights of students to be secure. Three circumstances appear to meet this standard: violent altercations, significant interference in a student’s right to feel safe at school and receive an education, significant interference with the delivery of instruction. It is important that students and parents have notice of the district’s intent to exercise such authority. 

Principals only have the responsibility to respond to off-campus incidents if they are informed. They cannot be expected to be monitoring student electronic activity while they are off-campus. 

Q: What is the best way to respond to cyberbullying incidents? 

Many times these situations involve cycles of aggression and retaliation. Principals must fully investigate. Principals can also often assist in getting harmful material removed. 

It is important to recognize that simply suspending students who engage in aggression often increases the harm. The suspended student and his or her friends are likely to retaliate, but this time in ways that make it harder to detect. The target often loses social status because he or she “tattled” and may be less likely to report the retaliation because the first report only made things worse. Instead, rely on restorative justice Make sure the emotional needs of all participants are effectively addressed. Enlist the assistance of the parents of the target and aggressors. 

Q: What about incidents occurring during school?

Very often cyberbullying and sexting incidents are occurring at school via cell phone texting. Students may not report because they fear this will implicate them in a violation of the rule against cell phone use. The failure to report can increase the harm and sometimes lead to violence. It is likely impossible to prevent today’s wired teens from texting outside of class. Making it safe to report is critical. 

Q: You have written that student sexting (sending nude images) is loaded with minefields for school leaders. What issues should be considered?

Sexting situations are exceptionally challenging. These situations can include exchanges that were expected to remain private but did not, actions that constitute harassment including unwelcome sending or malicious distribution, and more serious situations involving sexual solicitation or exploitation. Concerns include:

  •  Students being hauled out of school in handcuffs—which has the potential of causing devastating emotional harm to the student(s) depicted.
  • Principals violating search and seizure laws—investigating records on cell phones when they were simply used at school.
  • Criminal concerns directed at principals not handling nude images of minors appropriately.
  • Schools being unable to effectively prevent the subsequent sexual harassment—which raises the potential for school avoidance, failure, and suicide—as well as liability for failure to prevent a hostile environment.


Here’s a checklist of things to do:

  • Districts must have an investigation protocol that has been approved by the local district attorney and district counsel. Ensure the involvement of the mental health community, especially the child abuse multidisciplinary team and sexual assault agencies, in the creation of this protocol.
  • Encourage early reporting. Confiscate all suspected cell phones, but do not look beyond the communication records (necessary to identify suspected cell phones) without specific law enforcement direction.
  • Ensure that depicted students are interviewed by someone with mental health expertise. Insist on this.
  • Emphasize counseling and rehabilitation, not punishment. Restorative justice approaches hold potential for greater effectiveness.
  • Strive to keep the situations quiet. Prepare for and respond effectively to the anticipated subsequent sexual harassment.
  • Schools likely do not have the legal authority to discipline a student for possession. However, distribution in a manner that constitutes harassment should be a violation of district policy. 

Q: How can districts improve their effectiveness?

Currently, in many states there is a strong push for the prevention of bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, often the push is for greater punitive responses. Maintain a focus on prevention and effective intervention.

  • Focus on establishing a positive school climate. Teach students how to avoid placing themselves at risk and effectively handle interpersonal conflict. Empower witnesses to provide warnings, assist in defusing situations, and know when they should report.
  • Conduct follow-up evaluations shortly after every incident. Request feedback from all students and parents involved, aggregate reports at the district level, assess the effectiveness of the interventions, and implement alternative strategies to achieve greater success. 

Nancy Willard is the Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She is a lawyer and a former special education teacher. She writes extensively on the issue of cyberbullying and sexting. For more information: Professional Resources