Tips for law enforcement: Preparing for and responding to cyberbullying

New resource is designed to strengthen ways law enforcement agencies can help schools and communities prevent and respond to cyberbullying.

Even though cyberbullying behaviors affect some youth year-round, many people across communities – parents, school staff and young people themselves – may be thinking more about this issue now that kids have returned to school. Since bullying in any form can have harmful impacts on the health and wellbeing of children and youth, schools and other youth settings are often looking for strategies they can use to prevent bullying behaviors and to best support those involved when these hurtful situations happen.

A desire to be well-prepared to prevent and address issues of cyberbullying is not limited to young people, their families and their schools. Law enforcement officers have been increasingly asked to help deal with cyberbullying situations in their communities. To help law enforcement agencies better understand their role in addressing these issues, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children recently released a resource titled, “Preparing and Responding to Cyberbullying: Tips for Law Enforcement.”

This resource, which was developed with support from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reflects input from experts in the fields of law enforcement, youth trauma, mental health, computer crimes, victim services and education. Parents, caregivers and adults who work within youth settings such as schools may be interested in knowing about the recommendations provided to help law enforcement agencies and officers prevent, prepare for and respond to cyberbullying incidents.

For example, one recommendation is for law enforcement agencies and officers to have a good understanding of their state’s laws related to cyberbullying. In 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 241, also known as Matt’s Safe School Law, which required public schools to develop clear policies prohibiting bullying of students (including bullying done electronically), as well as retaliation against targets or reporters of bullying behaviors. In 2013, bills were introduced in both the Michigan Senate and Michigan House of Representatives that would further define and address issues specifically related to cyberbullying. The “Tips for Law Enforcement” resource also stresses that officers should know about laws related to cyber harassment and cyber stalking – behaviors that involve stalking or harassing another person through computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Many states, including Michigan, have laws that prohibit these frightening behaviors and have used these laws to prosecute young people as well as adults. The resource also emphasizes the importance of understanding federal civil rights laws on discriminatory harassment, which involves bias-based behaviors related to race, color, national origin, sex and disabilities.

The “Tips for Law Enforcement” resource recommends that agencies and officers should work with schools to develop clear procedures for determining if, and how local police should be involved in responding to cyberbullying complaints. This might involve clarifying steps such as how police would communicate with the young people involved (as well as their friends and families), how evidence would be collected and how counseling professionals could be consulted and involved to provide support to the young people effected.

The resource also emphasizes the importance of having law enforcement agencies and officers involved in educational efforts with schools and local media sources in order to increase awareness about and prevent hurtful cyberbullying behaviors. This includes educating both young people and their parents about Internet safety issues and ways to respond to cyberbullying in safe and constructive ways – and it can also involve working in partnership with young people on prevention efforts.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about issues related to bullying, cyberbullying, bias and harassment within the lives of young people. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and prevent issues like bullying, cyberbullying and bias-based behaviors.

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