Partners in Fighting Cyberbullying
How a university-school collaboration is reshaping school climate and strengthening relationships
BY VALERIE L. MARSH AND SHAUN C. NELMS/School Administrator, May 2020


Valerie Marsh of the Center for Urban Education Success in Rochester, N.Y., works with East High School to improve school climate and reduce bullying.


Steady increases in both teen suicides and school shootings have heightened public concern about cyberbullying. Providing a cover of anonymity for bullies, cyberbullying favors digital spaces where young people spend their time — Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and texting communication.

Lately, this type of bullying has confounded parents and educators, who have grown fearful for students’ emotional health and safety.

At East High School in Rochester, N.Y., once the lowest-performing school in the lowest-performing district in the state, we are shaping a new culture, one that diminishes cyberbullying. To prevent the school’s closure in 2015, the Rochester City School District took advantage of a new educational reform option offered by the state — receivership. East High School became an educational partnership organization — a partnership between the school district, New York State Education Department and the University of Rochester, with the university functioning as the school’s receiver.

Our task was to revitalize East in five years. We have become a district within our city school district with our own superintendent (Nelms) and relative autonomy. We have developed our approach to cyberbullying by grounding it in research rather than as a reaction to fear.

Research on Cyberbullying

Empirical studies provide a richer and sometimes differing perspective than do public conversations about youth and bullying. Here’s what we learned:

»Cyberbullying is the least common form of bullying. Traditional bullying — verbal and physical intimidation — is twice as common.

»Traditional bullying and cyberbullying intertwine. Frequent perpetrators of traditional bullying are likely to bully online and to become victims of cyberbullying as their online bullying increases. Likewise, victims of traditional in-school bullying likely experience cyberbullying as well.

»School location is irrelevant. No measurable differences in bullying exist among students at suburban, urban and rural schools. Therefore, our school, situated in an urban context, could use any research-supported approach to anti-bullying and feel reasonably confident in the likelihood of success.

»Decreasing traditional bullying decreases cyberbullying. Targeting traditional bullying in school is a research-supported intervention for cyberbullying.

»School climate makes the biggest impact on whether bullying will thrive, survive or diminish. Particularly for students with high self-esteem, school climate can sway their behaviors in either direction. In negative school climates, students with high self-esteem tend to behave like bullies. In schools they consider supportive, these students are less likely to bully. Victims who perceive a positive school climate seek help for bullying and threats of violence.

Practical Applications

At East, we needed to reshape our school climate, not only to affect bullying, but to generally shift our culture.

The year prior to forming the partnership between the university and school system, East High School reported 2,468 suspensions. Attendance averaged 77 percent, and the graduation rate was 33 percent. These numbers reflected a school climate in need of repair.

We used three tools to change East’s climate: a new mission statement representing our beliefs; a new advisory period (that we call “family group”) where beliefs could be translated into structures; and restorative practices, which revamped policies.

Articulating Our Beliefs

We invited students and staff to articulate East’s mission statement, which took over a year to develop. Through interviews and surveys, we collected their wishes and hopes for a reimagined East High School. We drafted and redrafted the mission, continually consulting everyone in the building to ensure it represented their beliefs about the school. Eventually, we arrived at the following: At East we are taking charge of our future by being tenacious, thinking purposefully, and advocating for self and others.

Our mission addresses bullying specifically by influencing peer norms. Just as normative beliefs that approve of bullying tend to promote it, normative beliefs that support the defense of victims lead to students intervening to stop it. Bystanders can have a powerful effect on bullying, depending on the peer norms they ascribe to.

Although many bullying prevention programs address the role of the bystander, they do so without addressing peer norms, yielding ineffective results. First, peer norms must change before any real change in bullying behaviors can occur. We knew our students, instrumental in creating our mission statement, were more likely to ascribe to these beliefs and affect peer norms.

Creating Structures to Embody Our Beliefs

We tied our mission to practice by launching Family Group as a daily 30-minute advisory period during which 10-12 students meet with the same two teachers. Uniquely positioned to foster trusting relationships with students as well as to model positive behavior, every member of the group, including teachers, treat everyone with respect.

The Family Group structure provides time and space for teachers and students, who typically interact around academics, to build more personal, supportive connections to each other. Such relationships often ripple into school climate, holding potential to limit bullying.

East Family Group coach Annaliese Wilmarth says once the supportive relationships were established, the staff began to “see how students have started advocating for one another and are building a sense of unity and connectivity in the halls, their classes and the cafeteria. We ask students to think purposefully about their academic goals and to exhibit tenacity by explaining the actions they intend to take to meet them.”

Family Groups celebrate happy events (like birthdays), support students with academics (reviewing progress reports) and offer comfort during difficult times (a brother’s suicide). Particularly for our students who have experienced trauma, Family Group provides structure to a school climate characterized by caring and support, one that deters bullying behaviors.

Relationship building is a goal of Family Group advisory meetings at East Upper and Lower Schools in Rochester, N.Y., under the direction of Shaun Nelms (second from left).

Developing School-Wide Policies

Our restorative practices anchor our policies in beliefs and structures. We’ve developed a highly effective, well-documented, whole-school approach to decrease bullying, increase restorative practices, increase empathy and build self-esteem among students and adults. We implemented restorative practices in every aspect of school life, shifting school culture by building and repairing relationships. We have trained all adults to approach students and conflict restoratively.

Restorative practices differ significantly from more common punitive discipline, where students are often sent out of class, receive punishment (detention or suspension) and eventually return to class without discussion about the harm that occurred. While we will still remove students from class when their behavior breaches our school values, we consider a wider range of consequences and apportion them progressively. After they return from detention or suspension, we work to reintegrate students back into their community through mediated conversations.

More often, though, we aim to keep students in class in the first place, by relying on relationship building, sense of belonging and social-emotional skills fostered through beliefs and structures. Little by little, students have begun to trust that their teachers and peers are interested in knowing them as people and supporting them through their challenges, thus preventing some bullying from ever occurring.

East student Gregory explained it this way: “I think everyone’s on track with the restorative conversations because nobody re-ally wants to have an issue with anyone here, but things do happen.” He believes his classmates would rather get along than fight or bully. When trouble does happen, students are more comfortable and apt to intervene.

Staff, too, feel empowered and skilled in their ability to respond. As Principal Marlene Blocker observed: “We now have kids who are coming and seeking help and support prior to something escalating to a point where true damage has occurred, and we can fix things and patch things and mend things before it gets to that point that is so difficult to come back from.”

Back to the Cybersphere

Because traditional bullying exceeds cyberbullying incidences, we have directed our efforts at counteracting traditional bullying, with the research-based understanding that decreased traditional bullying will, in turn, diminish cyberbullying. We have focused our work on improving the school climate at East High School by articulating our beliefs; practicing those beliefs within school structures; and implementing policies that embody our beliefs and infuse our systems.

More than four years into our university-school partnership, we see changes indicating a shifting school culture. We administer 2,100 fewer suspensions a year. Our attendance rate has increased from 77 percent to 88 percent. Our graduation rate has more than doubled, from 33 percent to 70 percent. Because school climate most effectively curbs bullying, these indicators of change encourage us.

Still, we remain alert to bullying that occurs in school, as it predicts cyberbullying. We work to stay aware of bullying perpetration and victimization in the everyday ways we interact with students — interactions that are more frequent and more authentic, thanks to our commitment to beliefs, structures and policies that create trusting relationships and a positive school climate.

VALERIE MARSH is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education in Rochester, N.Y. and assistant director of the Center for Urban Education Success. E-mail: Twitter: @URCUES. SHAUN NELMS is educational partnership organization superintendent of East Upper and Lower Schools in Rochester, N.Y., and director of the Center for Urban Education Success.

Additional Resources

The authors suggest these informational resources on bullying and cyberbullying.
»A practitioner research brief on bullying prevention published by the Center for Urban Education Success at the University of Rochester. The brief includes a resource guide with a list of websites and resources for bullying interventions in schools. The brief refers to several U.S. Department of Education graphs on bullying prevalence and a two-page summary of research findings.
»Two practitioner briefs on restorative practices written by Valerie Marsh: “Restorative Practice: History Successes, Challenges and Recommendations” and “Becoming Restorative: Three Schools Transitioning to a Restorative Practices Culture."
»Cyberbullying resources created by the Cyberbullying Research Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
»Two videos on Family Group at East High School (“Family Group: Why?” and “Family Group: How?”) and one video on “Restorative Practices at East.”