Thursday, August 15, 2013

Clean Up Your Mess! Restorative Justice and Alternative Judicial Remedies for Cyberbullying Cases

Alternative Judicial and Disciplinary Approaches to Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying responses fall into the “too hot” or “too cold” categories. Schools, parents and the judiciary system must aim for justice and “just right” instead. Prosecutors either decide that there is no case, or none worth prosecuting, or throw the book at the cyberbullies. And, in some cases, the only difference between the two is whether or not the community has faced negative cyberbullying publicity or experienced a cyber-bullycide.

In the Phoebe Prince case, the prosecutor indicted the students under a wide-range of crimes, including civil rights violations and harassment. The last of the six students charged recently entered into a plea bargain that resulted in 100 hours of community service and an order not to profit from the case or Phoebe’s story. While Parry Aftab has been very supportive of the way this case has been handled, she hoped that any “community service” requirement would include work toward stopping cyberbullying.

At a joint speaking engagement in Vermont, Barbara Coloroso (one of the world’s leading experts in bullying and in genocide) explained her take on “restorative justice[1]” to Parry.  Each added their unique perspective to the issue. Parry had been advocating alternative justice avenues and early intervention programs when the cyberbullying violates the law but doesn’t pose a threat of bodily harm or death. Both agreed that the cyberbully should be required to make things right.

Building on Barbara’s teachings, Parry has created a program to require court or official supervised “restitution.” Parry calls this “cleaning up the mess you made.”

Clean Up the Mess You Made (a/k/a “restorative justice” or “restitution”)

Cyberbullying often involves popular students (or those who want the popular ones to like them better) using their social clout to exclude their target or to ruin their reputation. It also involves big tough bullies who intimidate their targets and others physically. Some cyberbullies are hackers, highly skilled in technology and good gamers. 

Others are articulate and understand the concepts of viral “marketing” to spread their messages far and wide. Cyberbullies have more talent, often, than their offline counterparts. Their messages can be more subtle (although just as deadly). They trade in insinuations, rumors and posing as their targets.

If we turned their misused talents to fixing their targets’ reputation, instead of destroying it, and having their posts removed and their texts deleted, while it may not be perfect, it’s an important start. Successful corporations offer reputation clean-up services. But no one can do it as well as a teen, tween or younger cyberbully required to undo the damage they caused.

We teach our children to clean up after themselves. It’s part of learning responsibility and understanding consequences of their behavior. The bigger the mess they make, the harder the clean-up. It makes sense. It serves the greater justice. And, it works.

The same “mean girls” who defamed their target with false rumors about her promiscuity can help turn things around with texts and IMs sent to everyone they sent the original statements to, telling them that what they did was wrong and asking others to delete anything they had and to forward this to others they may have shared the derogatory statements with. Supervision is crucial to make sure that the apology is genuine and this is not used to further the attacks.

The cyberbullies should also be required to apologize. Not just with a simple “I’m sorry,” but with a heartfelt message and a promise not to do it again. The apology should be public, to those who witnessed the cyberbullying. And, the apology must appear to be sincere. Students’ online posts and texts should be monitored for a period of time to make sure that they are not using the apology to further fuel the cyberbullying fire.

The target doesn’t have to accept the apology, but should hear or see it. The goal is not to make them best friends or require the target to do or stop doing anything. The goal is to teach the cyberbully about what is acceptable and what is not.

When criminals are convicted, often the items used in the commission of the crime are seized and forfeited. Jet boats and aircraft, million dollar mansions, motorcycles and sports cars are auctioned off by law enforcement authorities after being seized. Why are students, when they plead “no contest” or “guilty” to the commission of a cyberbullying offense be any different? Why should their XBox accounts or their Facebook profiles remain their own? Cell phones, gaming devices and laptops are the cyberbullying crime equivalent of the mansions, boats and planes. Why not forfeit them?

When students are charged with a crime, their access to justice often falls into one of two camps – those with the funds to hire quality defense counsel and pull strings when necessary and everyone else. Although this is rapidly changing, cyberbullying tends to be higher in more affluent communities. The students have more devices and access to technology, they don’t have to hold down jobs after school to help their parents make the rent (which gives them lots of downtime and the opportunity to seek entertainment at the cost of others when bored) and are more likely to use words as a weapon.

We have seen cases where students from well-connected families can get away with cyberbullying, while others do not. And when cyberbullying is sometimes motivated by economic differences, the brand and condition of clothing worn by the target, who wears hand-me-downs, this can be especially troubling.

Everyone is searching for a silver bullet. There is never one silver bullet solution for any important issue. First you need to examine the issue, understand what is happening, motives and tactics. Only then can you parse it well enough to target the easy issues. Digital hygiene (good passwords, clean machines and privacy settings) can reduce cyberbullying significantly. Teaching digital and information literacy will help students use better judgment in what they do or how they respond to avoid appearing to be a cyberbully accidentally. Giving students the skills to “take it offline” when something said by a friend  hurts their feelings, can help them deal with the confusing nature of digital communications or cyberbullies posing as their friends.

The more we can address the facets of cyberbullying, teach our children to “stop, block and tell” rather than give the cyberbullies the reaction they are seeking, the easier the problem will be. No silver bullet – but ways to reduce the likelihood that students can be easily targeted, students hurting other by accident and students thinking that they can get away with cyberbullying. For justice to apply, the consequences must be clear, consistent and the punishment must fit the crime.

Phoebe Prince’s family was satisfied, apparently, with the sentencing. But for the next case, hopefully we can expect a punishment that better fits the crime and teach all students to clean up after their own mess.

[1] Restorative justice is a term used more outside of the US than within the US. (Barbara spends a great deal of time addressing these issues in Canada and worldwide, and has been preaching restorative justice for years.)