Cyber bullying: Are teachers at risk?

(AAP)

It's well known that the internet and social media has exposed school students to new risk of bullying and harassment online. But how do their teachers fare?

Janelle Grey* remembers when she first became aware of a website that allows students to rate their teachers and write comments about them.

"It was a topic of conversation that the other teachers and I would talk about in the staff room," the now-32-year-old says.

"I refused to look at it because I didn't want to know. 

"And then I peeked at it a couple of times."

The comments posted about her on the website were mostly negative - "she shouldn't be a teacher"; "Not good with kids"; "Her voice annoys me" - and included numerous references to her clothes and appearance.

While most were posted in 2006, Janelle's "profile" on the website is still one of the first thing that appears when you Google her name.

Private lives

Today, social media websites like Facebook present the easiest avenue for students to contact their teachers.

Sydney teacher Jonathan Myles* made sure his Facebook page was private when he began working as a teacher after graduating university two years ago.

"Like anything with the internet, it's a new threat and something that we’re all still learning about."

But he soon found out he hadn't covered all his bases.

"One of the boys had a laptop," he recalls. "And he turned it around and he had made the wallpaper one of my photos from Facebook."

While he was shocked the students had managed to find his page and access private photos, Jonathan was mostly relieved the pictures weren't more incriminating, and he tried to take it on the chin.

"I knew they weren't being malicious with it," he says.

Jonathan believes the internet presents a host of new problems for teachers, who are becoming more aware of protective measures they need to put in place.

"Like anything with the internet, it's a new threat and something that we’re all still learning about," he says.

The risks

Dr Damian Maher, from the UTS School of Education in New South Wales, says discussion among students online is not a bad thing, but there are limits.

"I don't think, from a conceptual point of view, that talking about their teachers is a bad thing,” he says. “But it depends on anonymity and what people are saying under the coverage of that - and what happens with that information."

Dr Maher's research looks at the use of the internet in primary, secondary and tertiary teaching, and he says that many institutions are working to educate their students on responsible use of the internet.

He believes these efforts have helped teachers stay protected.

"You don't see in a big way students targeting teachers online. It does happen, there’s no doubt about that, but I don’t think the incidences of it are large."

He says teachers need to be responsible for their own internet usage, too.

"If you set up a site it's really up to you to make sure it’s set in such a way that you want it to be set," he says. "If it’s a private website set up outside of the school, the school can’t take any proactive steps."

Damaged reputations

After she quit teaching in 2007, Janelle Grey* recalls telling a friend about her “profile” on the rating website and was surprised by her friend’s response.

"She got quite upset and said 'You have to take that off, because that could be really damaging for you in terms of future employment'," she says.

"Which I had never really thought about."

Melbourne University senior law lecturer Jason Bosland says commentary about teachers online can certainly be defamatory and have a lasting impact.

"Anything which could be defamatory in the real world is also defamatory online," he says.

"If an ordinary, reasonable reader of a rate-my-teacher website would think less of the particular teacher being rated as the result of the comments made, those comments would be defamatory."

"It could range from defamatory things about their personal life all the way to defamatory things about their professional life."

"You don't want the owners of websites such as Facebook making decisions about what is defamatory and what is not because there are real freedom-of-speech implications there."

But he says there is little teachers can do to prevent or restrict such comments because the internet is largely unregulated.

"If the comment is anonymous, I would think the best course of action would be to contact the owner of the website and request removal," he says.

"But other than that it's very, very difficult to have material removed from the online space."

Earlier this year, 20-year-old Andrew Farley was ordered to pay $105,000 compensation after a court found he had defamed former teacher Christine Mickle on social media in 2012.

Ms Mickle had filled a position teaching music at Orange High School that was formerly occupied by Mr Farley's father.

Mr Farley later said the comments made on Twitter and Facebook were between friends and "never meant for public broadcast".

A balancing act

Jason Bosland says there are risks to coming down too hard on cyber commentary.

"You don't want the owners of websites such as Facebook making decisions about what is defamatory and what is not because there are real freedom-of-speech implications there," he says.

"You wouldn't want a situation where a teacher could just contact Facebook and Facebook could unilaterally take down material."

While some comments may be defamatory, he says they could have a valid defence such as the truth defence, fair-comment defence or qualified privilege defence.

"It's much more finely balanced than the simple defamation test."

*Names have been changed

The full judgment in former teacher Christine Mickle's landmark case:

 

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