Feature                                                      18-25



A suburban school district uses a task force of students, educators and outsiders to devise strategies for stemming inappropriate online behavior


It was a varied group that gathered in the Montgomery County, Md., school district headquarters late in September to discuss how to promote civilized behavior by students and adults online. There were parents, students, a principal, a legal expert, technology specialists and several people representing community organizations.
 Davis Feature
The Montgomery County Public Schools' Cybercivility Task Force included, from left, student David Edimo, staff member Margaret Guadino and parent Phyllis Marcus.

The ideas they threw out were varied too: an online reporting system for cyberbullying; a districtwide acceptable use policy for mobile devices; a script for a public service announcement; and several tweaks for existing school district policies.

The meeting was part of a months-long Cybercivility Task Force effort to address a high-tech problem that schools and districts across the country are grappling with as they invite more technology into the education system, and students’ social lives become increasingly linked to what happens online.

The Montgomery County task force aimed to go beyond addressing cyberbullying and digital citizenship by wrapping those disparate efforts together and casting a wider net. This effort is “unique” among public schools nationwide, says Mike Lorion, vice president and general manager of education at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, which educates students and adults about the media and technology.

What Lorion finds distinctive is that the cybercivility task force’s genesis was not sparked by a human tragedy or an extreme event. He also points to its inclusiveness: “This was created around the notion of citizenship and responsibility and the superintendent has really made it a communitywide effort.”

Responsible Use

As school districts adopt 1-to-1 device programs and dive deep into online learning, educators are facing an uptick in poor online behavior, the consequences of which often spill over into school hallways. News media attention to tragedies involving students who commit suicide after cyberbullying has generated fears among parents and prompted school officials to take action. In September, the Seminole County, Fla., Public Schools hosted an evening of presentations about the dangers of online behavior a week after 14-year-old student Lamar Hawkins III committed suicide at his school after allegedly being cyberbullied.

In other communities, school leaders want to get out in front of the problem. This year, students in Belton, Mo., can report acts of cyberbullying through an online system called Sprigeo. Frankfort Middle School in Indiana just launched a nine-week digital citizenship class for 7th and 8th graders. At 2,000-student Evans High School near Augusta, Ga., the principal asked the student council to develop guidelines for social media use, which were printed in a brochure and distributed to all students.

For the 154,000-student Montgomery County district, the launching point was a publicized act of inappropriate online behavior that targeted the superintendent. In December 2013, Superintendent Joshua Starr was deliberating over whether inclement weather would require a next-day closing of schools. On the social-networking site Twitter, Starr began to receive tweets from students weighing in on his decision to keep schools operating, including comments that were not respectful and, in some cases, much worse.

Starr, unsettled by the experience, sent an open letter to district parents days later in which he described many of the tweets as “clever, funny and respectful.” But others were nothing of the sort. Many, he wrote, “were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words.”

The episode got Starr, a Twitter user himself, thinking about how to begin a dialogue with students, parents and the community about appropriate online behavior on social networking sites, online reputation, the use of e-mail for educational and collegial purposes and website exploration.

Mobile Device Rollout

The timing was right for a systemwide initiative. Montgomery County was poised to embark on a significant 1-to-1 initiative using Google Chromebooks, and some schools were embracing a “bring your own device” program, also known as BYOD. This school year, the county’s students have more access to technology during the school day than ever before, says Sherwin Collette, the district’s chief technology officer.

But that also means more opportunity for online misbehavior, Collette says, making the work of the cybercivility task force fit “hand in hand” with the technology rollout.

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“We need to be explicit with staff and students about how to use this technology responsibly as they work collaboratively in these digital spaces and leverage these tools,” he says. “It’s often assumed that because students have been immersed in these digital worlds” they know how to comport themselves, but that’s not necessarily true, he adds.

Studies by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project bear that out. According to the group’s 2013 report on social media use, teens are sharing more personal information about themselves than ever. On social networking sites, more teens are posting photos of themselves, their school name, the town where they live, their e-mail address and cell phone numbers.

The Cyberbullying Research Center also notes that about a quarter of the 15,000 students it has surveyed over recent years admitted they had been cyberbullied and 9 percent said they had been a victim in the previous 30 days. About 16 percent admitted they had targeted someone else.

Wide-Ranging Agenda

To address these issues, Starr formed the task force with a diverse group of about 35 people. He charged them with developing strategies to help encourage appropriate and healthy online decisions by students, awareness by parents and education strategies for teachers.

At monthly meetings, the task force has used subcommittees to cover everything from legal issues to student engagement, marketing, curriculum and parent outreach. They’ve heard presentations from principals about anti-cyberbullying efforts and from experts such as those with Common Sense Media.

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Defining Cybercivility
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Additional resources 

In late October, the district’s communications office unveiled a draft plan on how to move forward with the suggestions from the task force for promoting cybercivility. The district plans to incorporate the majority of ideas into tangible products, such as brochures for parents, new curricula, public service announcements and student assemblies on the topic. Policy changes would have to go before the school board, says Brian Edwards, chief communications officer. The district’s cybercivility website also will be revamped to provide a robust forum for resources, he says.

At one meeting this fall, task force members provided an overview of their findings and work. Several subcommittees collected lists of resources, including books, articles, websites and organizations dealing with students’ appropriate use of personal technology — some intended for teacher use, possibly in tandem with the existing health curriculum. Another list was suitable for printing in a brochure that could be mailed to parents. Other resources targeted students.

The policies and research subcommittee examined existing school district rules on bullying and computer use to prepare language about cyberbullying and other cybercivility issues.

One of the student representatives on the task force, Josh Siegel, a junior at Wootton High School, displayed a sample interface he’d created for an online app or form for students to use when reporting acts of cyberbullying. He envisions students texting the form to school officials or submitting it online. “Most kids don’t want to write something down when it takes place online. They want to take a screen shot,” he says. “With an app, they’re more likely to report problems.”

Another subcommittee compiled a list of pertinent laws that apply to cases of cyberbullying or inappropriate behavior online. That included a focus on stalking and harassment laws and Maryland’s Grace’s Law, passed by state lawmakers in 2013. Named after 15-year-old Grace McComas, a high school freshman at Glenelg High School in Howard County, Md., who committed suicide in 2012 after constant targeting on social media, the law makes it illegal to repeatedly and maliciously use a computer or smartphone to bully someone under the age of 18.

Steve Chaikin, division chief for community outreach with the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office and a task force member, says his office makes as many as 50 presentations a year on Internet safety and cyberbullying laws. He knows parents thirst for guidance. Montgomery County’s initiative is “a more sophisticated effort” to address online behavior, he says. “We’re looking to solve the problem from multiple angles, taking a community-based approach but centered through the school system.”

Toward that end, the district convened a mix of stakeholders delivering differing perspectives. The disparate views have informed the work, task force member Cyrus Nemati, a web production manager for the New America Foundation, says. “I thought this could be a very good thing or a very bad thing if it goes wrong. I wanted to make sure they were developing measured policies and attacking the right problems without being overbroad and possibly infringing on students’ free speech rights.”

Nemati worked on a script for a public service announcement called “The Internet Never Forgets.” Its storyline demonstrates how students’ online behavior can impact their reputations forever and, in turn, everything from their college applications to long-term relationships with others. The district is going forward with public service announcements but may call on students to write the scripts.

Diverse Thinking

The varied voices contributed richly to the task force’s final products. At the September meeting when a subcommittee presented possible changes to policies to enhance protection of students in cyberbullying situations, the principal of Eastern Middle School, Casey Crouse, raised an issue from an alternate perspective. What about policies to protect educators? she asked.

“School staff are vulnerable … and without a lot of recourse if they’re targeted in a cyber way that is school related,” she told others. “I don’t want to see that group lost because they put themselves out there every day.”

The task force also has given the district’s students an equal voice in devising strategies. A handful of the appointed task force members are students. That’s critical, says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. (See related story, page 24.) To do this work successfully, she adds, “you have to know what students think about these issues.”

The students themselves found the adults on the committee gave their opinions equal, if not greater weight. Camryn Mercer, a sophomore at Quince Orchard High School, says when those on her subcommittee discussed finding experts to address school assemblies, she told them a presentation from college students or even high school students might be better received. Recruiting younger speakers was incorporated into the final plan, Mercer says.

A Broader Approach

The task force initiative certainly is not the school district’s only strategy relating to digital citizenship and cyberbullying. Much of that takes place on a school-by-school or even class-by-class basis. For its spring project last year, the student council at Wootton High School surprised the rest of the school one day by papering the hallways with as many negative comments as they could find authored by Wootten students on social networking sites, according to Principal Michael Doran. It was controversial, and some teachers were upset by the destructive remarks posted on walls for the day. But Doran says it had a significant impact on students.

“What the students saw was real, and they maybe even saw themselves,” he says, adding that the postings were coupled with a session on what the student council had learned about cyberbullying and the importance of bystander reporting.

Doran, who gave a presentation on cyberbullying to the task force, says he hopes the work of the cybercivility task force will provide principals with more guidance when educating students and parents. It’s important for parents not only to be aware of what their children are doing online, but to think about their own online behavior when interacting with school officials.

“Cyberbullying is only one aspect of the misuse of technology,” he says. “We have to have a wider view.”

Michelle Davis is a freelance education writer in Silver Spring, Md. E-mail: michrdavis@hotmail.com


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