Touro Students Examine Cyberbullying from Interprofessional Education Perspective

students from various disciplines come together to discuss cyberbullying, school discipline and free speech in academic environments

August 02, 2022
By: Melina Healey, J.D., Touro University Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center

Last Spring, students from the Graduate School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Education (from special education and leadership education programs) and the Law Center convened in interdisciplinary teams to for Touro’s annual Interprofessional Educational (IPE) Symposium. Students employed practice experience and methodology from each of these disciplines to address cyberbullying, school discipline and free speech in academic environments through an interactive case study.

The case study we created was derived from my own experience learning from other professions. In 2009, I represented young New Yorkers in school disciplinary hearings and advocated for their rights in special education cases in the city. At the time, my husband taught middle-school English, and our close friend was a school principal. When the three of us sat down to dinner together I would share my outrage at the teachers and principals who were set on kicking my clients out of school. In turn, they would share good-humored stories about the outrageous and often delightful things children did in their schools. They lived in the brilliant technicolor of a noisy and crowded school. I existed in a gray and more sedate place: interviewing children and families in court offices and cross-examining school employees at administrative hearings.

One dinner, my principal friend recounted how he had, in the prior week, performed a modern dance for the school talent show. My friend is gay and had worn a traditional long skirt from his Southeastern Asian culture for the dance. The resulting backlash from a small minority of the community, mostly parents, was swift. They demanded meetings with the school’s board; called for my friend’s firing or resignation; and threatened to report him to the police or other disciplinary authority for “influencing” their children into being gay or questioning their gender or sexuality.

Over a decade later, following many cases in which I represented students disciplined for “social media” activity, my principal friend’s experience provided the foundation for a simulation in the clinic I teach at the law school. In this simulation, a high school student has posted an offensive homophobic Tik Tok post targeting the school principal and the school suspends the student. My law students represent the student in this simulation. The client’s goals are simple: to avoid suspension or a discipline record. When we as lawyers engage in direct representation, under ABA Model Rule 1.2, we must “abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of representation.” So considerations like “was the principal treated fairly?” or our personal views on the offensiveness of the student’s behavior, or worries about how the post might affect the student’s LGBTQ peers, or our thoughts on how the importance of providing a safe, happy, and inclusive school environment for all students, are subordinate to our obligation to faithfully advocate for our client’s individual goals. We focus our attention on how most effectively to deploy case law (like the recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on school discipline for social media activity) to advance our client’s interests.

But broader moral, social, and policy questions about how to deal with recent increases in bullying and cyberbulling behavior, or young people’s often problematic and toxic social media activity, are equally important considerations. So the Touro IPE faculty committee adopted this simulation for the symposium to gain insights from each other on how to handle cyberbullying in schools. Our students convened in interdisciplinary teams to review and discuss the case. The teams did impressive work identifying and describing the distinct roles of their own disciplines and their professional responsibilities in the scenario. But they went much further.  They worked collaboratively to identify more effective ways of addressing this and other incidents of abuse, harassment, and other “disciplinary” matters in school, and to imagine better systems of redress and healing (like restorative justice) in school communities.

I took a great deal from the IPE Symposium. I learned from the social work students about how to talk to young people and understand their behavior. I learned from education leadership students about designing disciplinary systems and policies that can serve all students, teachers and administrators. And I learned from Graduate Special Education students that inquiry into a student’s disability or suspected disability is a complex challenge when the pandemic has exacerbated the volume of student need. The more we can come together to share experience, knowledge, and insights across disciplines the better we will serve the communities that depend on each of our professions.