Reimagining Anti-Cyberbullying Policies: Fostering Remediation, Repair, and Emotional Redress in School Communities

By Natalie Pemberton posted 17 days ago


Reimagining Anti-Cyberbullying Policies: Fostering Remediation, Repair, and Emotional Redress in School Communities 

by Emily Zhang, Kayla Luga, and Carly Berwick

Concerned mother looking at daughter's computer.

Emily Zhang, Kayla Luga, and Carly Berwick wrote the article “How Are We Supposed to Get Over It’: Transforming Schools’ Approach to Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying through Feminist Abolitionist Principles” in the latest quarterly issue of  The Educational Forum. The article is available for free in the month of July.

Be an upstander, not a bystander. If you see something, say something. These phrases have been embedded in our education since childhood. To solve bullying, one had to simply speak up and tell a trusted adult. But what happens when the bullying is hidden online, and adults do not know how to respond effectively?  

Cyberbullying is fraught territory for schools, which need to respond to content students send to other students even outside their physical buildings. Yet the effectiveness of current anti-bullying policies and interventions for cyberbullying cases is questionable, with many shortcomings in providing redress for targets and correcting patterns of behavior from perpetrators, often compelling students to undergo a bureaucratic and time-consuming process with no clear resolution.  

In our article “How Are We Supposed to Get Over It’: Transforming Schools’ Approach to Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying through Feminist Abolitionist Principles,” in the current issue of The Educational Forum, we discuss our experiences with the state’s bullying policy as applied by a school district in the northeast. The three co-authors experienced a case of alleged cyberbullying by students in which we only became aware that we were in fact being harassed when another student shared the content of a group chat. This created further murky senses of damage and redress, as now we knew that weand our bodieswere being discussed negatively but not exactly what had been said. In the case of the two student co-authors, we continued to have classes and interact in school and school groups with those who had, in theory, said such egregious things that an investigation was openedwhile only being able to imagine what was said and gather bits and pieces of it from other students. 

This contradiction between the early anti-bullying messages and the reality of adults’ inability to stop and solve cyberbullying caused a failure in trust in the adults in charge of our education. We didn’t know how bad it was, how widespread it waswhile still knowing enough to know it was bad and widespread. There had to be a better way to live among our fellow students for a year than in whispers, uncertainty, and fear. The status quo approach of dealing with each case as an isolated incident, with confidential consequences for the offenders, did not change the culture from which the bullying grew. 

Bullying is often a complex manifestation of cultural beliefs that children are exposed to from a young agethey unconsciously learn their relative positions of power (or lack thereof). Hence, bullying on the basis of identity does not exist in a vacuum, and especially as cyberbullying becomes an increasingly potent yet uncharted channel of harassment, we must ask whether the existing systems meant to protect students are still effective. After all, telling students to ‘trust the system,’ only for the system to prove ineffective, will undermine their belief in American education and systems in general.  

To evaluate the efficacy of anti-bullying processes, we must define what it means for this system to be effective. Redress of victims? Remediation of perpetrators? It is possible to stop a bully from exhibiting their behavior without changing their underlying motivations or beliefs, and is it the responsibility of the school to shape the citizens of tomorrow and reform harmful belief systems that students may harbor?  

Looking to principles of feminist abolitionism can help provide counternarratives and examples of how to have accountability, repair, and restoration of trust within communities. It helped us to see that feminists and abolitionists who have worked with survivors of violence have developed extensive systems for how to support victims in their desire for understanding and accountability. Based on our experiences, we find that some of these principles in schools include ongoing inter-peer discussions, guidelines for participation in groups and extracurricular activities, informing teachers clearly, and increased transparency about the process of investigation and, ideally, repair overall.  


Emily Zhang is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying computer science and economics and is pursuing a concentration in education.  
Kayla Luga is a student at Wellesley College studying education and history.  
Carly Berwick is a doctoral candidate in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University.