Cyber-bullying – Are schools filling the legal gap?

Anjonet Jordaan -- Fri, 12/12/2014 - 11:30

Cyber-bullying – Are schools filling the legal gap?

The matter of bullying among school-going kids have garnered much attention worldwide this year. Most wonder what parents can do to protect their kids from bullies at school and cyber bullies online.

Children spend several hours at school 5 days a week, which means that the school your child attends have a responsibility to help protect your child from such bullies – but are schools ready to successfully face the growing challenge of cyber bullying?


Wendy Batterbee, PhD student of NWU Vaal Campus' School of Education

Schools have a legal responsibility

A PhD student at the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University, Wendy Batterbee, completed her PhD study as part of the research project “Creating Successful Public Schooling within a Legal Milieu”. This research project is headed up Prof Elda de Waal, researcher within the School of Education and the Optentia Research Focus Area on the Vaal Campus.

The intent behind Wendy’s study was to examine whether schools are geared to fill the legal gap that exists between the available cyber technology and managing learner cyber bullying effectively. As such, she focused her research on clarifying to what extent legislation , policies and guidelines offer support to combat cyber bullying at schools; and, whether participating schools were implementing legislation, polices and guidelines relevant to cyber bullying in their learner Codes of Conduct.

Wendy’s contribution was geared firstly at focusing on relevant legal a subordinate legislation documents that govern education in order to pinpoint to what extent they already counteract bullying at school level. In this regard, her legal framework is a first attempt in South Africa to indicate how legislation, policies and guidelines offer support to schools in combating cyber bullying.

A major finding in this regard is that the existing legal support needs to be communicated to schools clearly; and, that the legal office of the Department of Basic Education must be seen to offer constant support in this regard. Ignorance of the law offers no excuse to schools.

Bridging the legal gap

Her contribution was secondly geared towards proposing innovative guidelines to develop a strategy to support schools in bridging the probable legal gap regarding cyber bullying. These guidelines were developed in line with:

  1. relevant legislation and other legal documents that are already in place to counterbalance cyber bullying at school level;
  2. taking a comprehensive look at the strengths and weaknesses that were identified while analysing the participating schools’ Codes of Conduct in order to consider how these aspects could form part of the suggested guidelines;
  3. the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) that Grades R-6 and 11 are currently using Life Skills lessons; and
  4. the Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support (PIBS) approach towards reducing disciplinary challenges such as cyber bullying at schools.

Using the life skills programme, Wendy developed an eight-week life skills strategy to support schools in bridging the legal gap between existing cyber technology and managing cyber bullying. In order to put this strategy into practice, she chose a participatory management model in the planning process, which ensured the involvement of all staff members, parents/caregivers, learners and community members, such as bus and taxi drivers who often experience negative learner behaviour.

Schools’ Codes of Conduct

Wendy’s analysis of participating schools’ Codes of Conduct gave rise to concern, as two of the 12 schools used the Departmental Exemplar: Code of Conduct with only a few minor changes, and another school used the exemplar without any change. The Departmental Exemplar is intended to be a guide only and each schools is required to develop a Code of Conduct that is unique to them under the guiding hand of the school governing body.

In eight of the schools’ Codes of Conduct there was no involvement of the school governing body to develop the document. One school’s Code of Conduct was dated 2009, while three of the schools’ Codes of Conduct were not dated at all – the annually required revision and updating are therefore questioned in these instances.

In several instances these codes did not contain basic references to expected positive learner behaviour based on fundamental rights (safety, security, dignity) or protection from and punishment of transgressions regarding bullying or cyber bullying. A novel skeleton for a practical Code of Conduct was therefore introduced.

*Dr Wendy Batterbee is a school principal at a local primary school in Vanderbijlpark. Dr Batterbee’s study leader Prof Elda de Waal, is a researcher at the Optentia Research Focus Area’s Flourishing in Institutions sub-programme situated on the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University. Her research focus is education law.