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  • R. Quinones

How Do Schools Address the Cyberbullying Epidemic?

Graphing calculators and overhead projectors were the height of classroom technology when many of today’s parents and teachers were growing up. Today’s students, however, have probably had little – if any – exposure to these relics, as 1:1 device policies are making even the #2 pencil a bygone commodity.

Changes in the K-12 experience go well beyond adoption of more advanced learning tools. How students socialize and interact with each other has been modified significantly by the technology they have access to. More connected devices, while a great tool for helping educators teach their students, has also opened the door for bullies to victimize their targets 24/7.

DoSomething.org, an anti-bullying think tank, found that 68 percent of studentsthey surveyed viewed cyberbullying as a serious concern for teens today. And while one in every five students polled admitted to being bullied, only one in 10 actually report the abuse, indicating that fear of retaliation – both online and in person – is pervasive among today’s youths.

Bullies thrive in cyberspace

Cyberbullies are no better than hackers, taking advantage of the social capabilities of the devices students use in the classroom and at home to target their victims. Bullies rely on their victims’ connections with peers on platforms like Facebook or Instagram to spread hurtful content to as many users as possible.

Schools have a vested interest in preventing this from happening, not just because of the oath teachers take to put the education and wellbeing of students first. Blocking access to certain materials online is the central tenant of the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires districts to filter web traffic for inappropriate content or lose government funding. Failing to protect students from these threats can also leave teachers and schools liable to litigation when events escalate, and students are put in physical harm, whether that’s at the hands of a bully or the student’s own.

Where to start?

Since the majority of internet traffic now turns to secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption for security certificates, schools are wise to turn to filtering that uses SSL inspection to vet traffic as a starting point. An SSL filter should reference a thoughtfully compiled list of blocked domains and keyword phrases related to inappropriate content as traffic attempts to pass through the web gateway, blocking data that indicates inappropriate content. This will require educators to constantly be on top of updating these keyword and website databases, since threats to students and hurtful terminology is constantly evolving.

Administrators need to be sure they’re taking a granular approach to evaluating the content they allow to enter the school’s networks, too. Many popular websites and applications – especially social media – represent a gray area, as there is a chance these sites could expose users to cyberbullying, but they can also be leveraged as great learning tools.

A valuable capability that solves this problem is allowing schools to restrict some activities on a per-site basis, ie. allowing access to Facebook but restricting messaging. Categorizing users by groups and blocking content accordingly – restricting YouTube for elementary students while granting some access to high schoolers, for instance – also enables a safe online learning environment without suffocating the resources students have access to.

Students themselves pose a threat to cybersecurity at schools as well. These youths have grown up using connected technology, and many cyberbullies will inevitably be well versed in circumventing rudimentary content filters and outdated network firewalls.

DNS-only solutions, for instance, only vet traffic by domain, which can be an easy workaround for students in the absence of more granular filters or proxies. Craigslist.com, for instance, might be considered a safe domain, but there are certainly adult pages within the site that schools would want to block. A keyword-based SSL filter, however, would recognize adult-oriented phrasing and block content based on these signals, assuring CIPA compliance while protecting impressionable students from inappropriate exposure.

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