Social Media and Online Abuse of Teachers

Dealing with online abuse of teachers

The NASUWT deplores the abuse of teachers and school or college leaders, including online and through the use of technology. Whilst recent attention has focused on the abuse of teachers via the TikTok platform, it is important to recognise that teachers and school or college leaders are also reporting incidents of online or remote abuse across all leading social media platforms as well as by email, telephone and text messaging.

Online abuse can happen on any digital communications platform, including:

  • social networks;

  • text messages and messaging apps;

  • email and private messaging;

  • online chats;

  • comments on live streaming sites and during live online lessons; and

  • voice chat in games.

Teachers may also suffer further harm when abusive content is recorded, uploaded or shared by others online.

What is online abuse or cyber harassment?

Online abuse or cyber harassment is the use of information and communications technologies by an individual or group to cause harm to another person. Such behaviour often involves uninvited, intimidating, offensive comments or replies, images or other content used to attack, intimidate, threaten or upset an individual personally.

Such harassment of teachers may constitute a criminal offence. It must be taken extremely seriously by school and college employers who have a duty to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of staff.

Cyber harassment and abuse also include expressions of discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, prejudice, hostility and hatred on the grounds of a person’s sex or gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or faith, or disability. It also includes online harassment, cyberstalking, and image-based abuse, including sexual abuse.

It is important to note that online abuse committed by pupils or students, parents or the public towards school or college staff is a serious offence and must be treated as such.

Where such abuse is committed by children or young people, it should be recognised that this does not diminish its significance or the level of distress it can cause victims. Schools and colleges will also recognise that such behaviour will have significant adverse implications for teaching and learning, the maintenance of discipline, and the effective delivery of the curriculum.

Cyber harassment, including certain criminal offences, involves activities that take place online to cause serious harm to individuals or organisations. Such harassment against an individual may include:

  • Trolling - a form of baiting online which involves sending abusive and hurtful comments across social media platforms. This can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 in England and Wales and the Communications Act 2003.

  • Online threats - including threats to kill, harm or to commit an offence against a person, group of people, or organisation.

  • Online harassment - includes repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications or contact in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear. This may include:

    • writing messages with intent to cause distress or anxiety in a public place or excluding people from online groups;

    • tagging photos with defamatory or negative comments;

    • voting for or against someone in an abusive poll;

    • setting up hate sites or groups about a particular teacher; and

    • creating fake accounts or hijacking or stealing online identities to embarrass or denigrate a teacher.

Cyber bullying or online harassment are offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, Protection from Harassment, (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 and Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and may also be subject to legal action under the law on defamation. 

  • Disclosure of private sexual images without consent - uploading sexual images of a person to the internet to cause the victim humiliation or embarrassment, including images obtained by upskirting or downblousing. It is a criminal offence to forward without consent a private sexual photograph or film if the purpose was to cause distress to the individual depicted.

  • Stalking online - involves persistent and frequent unwanted contact or interference in someone's life.

  • Virtual mobbing occurs when a number of individuals use social media or messaging to make negative or derogatory comments about another individual to cause harm or distress. The volume of messages posted may, by itself, provide evidence of a campaign of harassment.

All employers have a legal responsibility to tackle all forms of bullying and harassment of a discriminatory nature under the Equality Act 2010 and Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure your health, safety and welfare under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974/The Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.

How can online abuse or cyber harassment affect teachers?

The effects of abuse and harassment by pupils or students on teachers can be extremely serious. Teachers have reported to the NASUWT that when they have been subjected to online abuse and cyber harassment by pupils or students, this has impacted on their self-esteem and their confidence in the classroom. Alongside the negative impacts this can have on the quality of teaching and learning, many teachers also report feelings of:

  • depression and anxiety;

  • low self-esteem;

  • fear;

  • social isolation; and

  • self-harm and suicidal feelings.

Online harassment and abuse can also occur outside school or college working hours and the working environment. Such incidents can often exacerbate feelings of fear and anxiety as the person receiving the abuse may be isolated at home when images or messages are seen.

What actions should schools/colleges be taking?

  1. Your school or college should ensure that its behaviour policy is applied fully, including use of the full range of sanctions available, up to and including permanent exclusion.

  2. Where necessary, school or college behaviour policies must also be reviewed, in consultation with staff and trade union representatives, to ensure that they address all forms of harassment and abuse by pupils or students, including online and remote abuse. Further guidance from the NASUWT on the development and review of behaviour management policies is available on our Behaviour Management pages.

  3. Where necessary, your school or college should seek the engagement of parents to support the communication of these expectations and the maintenance of appropriate behaviour standards by pupils or students.

  4. Given the employer's duty of care to its employees, it may also be necessary in some cases for a member of staff not to be required to have contact with a pupil or student who has abused them online in light of the serious distress that such contact could cause.

  5. The NASUWT expects that schools/colleges must consider and carry out a risk assessment to assess the potential risks that an individual member of staff who has been the direct subject of abuse, as well as other members of staff, may face through their contact with a pupil or student who has committed online abuse.

  6. Your school or college should take appropriate steps to ensure that you are not required to have contact with the pupil or student concerned, where this could further contribute to your stress, anxiety or personal safety.

  7. Your school or college must undertake an up-to-date risk assessment and consult with staff and trade union representatives on the measures that will be put into place to ensure the safety of staff both within the school or college and online.

  8. Incidents of harassment, including online abuse of staff by pupils or students, must be recorded by the school or college as a health and safety incident or dangerous occurrence which has the potential to cause harm.

  9. Incidents that occur outside a staff member's hours or place of work will also fall under the employer's responsibility if they relate to the staff member's employment.

  10. As part of their internet safety procedures, schools and colleges should ensure that access to social media sites is blocked by default on their own networks.

What can you do if you are subjected to online abuse by pupils or students?

If you are subjected to online abuse by pupils or students, you should contact the NASUWT and take the following action:

  1. Do not respond directly to your abuser(s) online

It is highly unlikely that pupils or students responsible for online abuse will cease if you respond to them online. It is often the case that doing so will simply draw greater attention to the original abuse. It is always better to address issues offline and through appropriate channels.

  1. If possible, capture evidence of the abuse

It is helpful to collect screenshots [1] or other evidence of any online abuse you have experienced, including its source, the time at which the abuse occurred, the platform(s) used and, if possible, the originator of the abuse. Such evidence is often helpful in addressing incidents of online abuse and can also be critical in any criminal proceedings that might follow.

  1. Report the abuse to your employer

As abuse received from pupils or students (or former pupils or students) relates to your professional role, it is important to remember that your employer has a statutory duty of care for the health, safety and welfare of school or college staff and should therefore take all reasonable steps to support you if you experience online harassment or abuse.

You should report any abuse to your employer as soon as you are aware of it, sharing (where appropriate) evidence you have been able to gather. Some evidence may give rise to child protection or safeguarding concerns and these concerns should be addressed through the relevant policies applicable to the school or college.

  1. Insist that your school or college policies and procedures are followed

No school or college staff member should be expected to endure violence or abuse at work or any abuse that arises from their work. Schools and colleges should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to abuse, including online abuse, and take all appropriate steps to prevent unacceptable behaviour and harassment of staff.

Cyber harassment against staff by pupils or students is always a breach of the standards of behaviour that schools and colleges can reasonably expect pupils or students to maintain. There are no circumstances where it can be justified or excused away, even in cases that might be considered less severe than others.

All schools and colleges must have a learner behaviour policy in place. It is important that abuse against staff online is treated as seriously as offline abuse. In all cases, and as a minimum expectation, pupils or students should be left in no doubt that such behaviour will not be tolerated and future expectations of conduct should be set out clearly.

  1. Seek medical advice

You should consider taking advice from your GP or other healthcare professional if you are experiencing adverse impacts on your physical or mental health due to any abuse you have encountered or witnessed.

  1. Seek additional support from your employer

It is likely that your experience of abuse will have caused you significant upset and distress. In addition to the steps set out above, the employer has a duty of care to ensure that all other possible steps are taken to support your health and wellbeing.

Where appropriate, these measures should include reasonable adjustments to enable staff to continue to discharge their responsibilities safely. Access to specialist support, advice and counselling services for staff who have been subject to distressing incidents at work should also be provided.

  1. Make a referral to the police

Depending on the nature of the abuse, it may be the case that it involves a criminal act. This is especially likely to be the case if the abuse is repeated, has caused significant distress or alarm, includes indecent content or is motivated by hostility, hatred or prejudice based on a person’s sex, race, religion or other protected characteristic. In these cases, you should ask your employer to refer the incident to the police or do so directly if your employer does not do so.

  1. Notify the service provider

Notwithstanding reported difficulties in getting service providers to take action in such cases, it is critical that they are notified of any abuse you have experienced. The provider could be your mobile phone operator or the social networking service on which the abuse occurred.

If the content breaks the provider's terms of service, is illegal or contravenes your rights under data protection legislation, the service provider should be asked to remove it and take appropriate action. Your employer should respond positively to any request you make for them to contact a service provider. However, if they fail to do so, you can also make a report directly.

It is important to be clear that even in cases where the identity of the person responsible for online abuse cannot be confirmed, employers continue to have responsibilities for their staff's health, safety and welfare. Your employer continues to have a responsibility to take all possible action to protect and support you if you have been subject to abuse. The involvement of the police and service providers is particularly important in such cases, as they can identify anonymous abusers in many instances.

Together - let’s do something to stop it

As a member of the NASUWT, you are not alone in dealing with the problem. Online abuse and cyber harassment of any teacher impacts every teacher. Many teachers have reported to the NASUWT their concerns about colleagues who have been victims of such abuse and harassment, as well as the fear that it could also happen to them. Working together, members are encouraged to take action to insist that they are not subjected to abuse at work or as a result of doing their job.

In many individual settings, members are benefiting by working together with their school or college to tackle the problem of online abuse and cyber harassment. It is important that members’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed by:

  • arranging to meet with other members in the school or college to talk about the issue;

  • raising the issue with the NASUWT School/College Representative or meeting with the NASUWT Local Association;

  • meeting with the headteacher or principal to discuss the issue and to agree solutions; and

  • with the help of the NASUWT National Executive Member, agreeing on appropriate action that can be taken to protect members at the school or college, including refusing to teach a pupil or student who is perpetrating abuse and harassment of members.

Support and advice are available from the NASUWT for members. You can seek help and guidance from the NASUWT directly if you are concerned that your school or college is not taking appropriate action to support and protect you and other members following any incident of online abuse from a pupil or student.

The NASUWT will continue to press all governments and administrations to take action to ensure safe working conditions for all members. Whilst we recognise the longer term commitment by governments and administrations to take action to secure online safety, urgent action is also needed.

The NASUWT is calling on social media companies to take action to stamp out this abuse. We also insist that all schools take effective action to ensure staff safety and wellbeing, particularly those subjected to online abuse.

The NASUWT works alongside organisations such as the Anti-Bullying Alliance, UK Safer Internet Centre, RespectMe, Childnet and the Professionals Online Safety Helpline to campaign against all forms of online harassment and abuse.

Social media companies cannot continue to be allowed to hide behind spurious arguments when their platforms are being used and abused to denigrate teachers and headteachers.

The NASUWT is, therefore, insisting that ministers take appropriate action to ensure that social media companies address immediately the very serious threats to teachers and take full responsibility for the harm being caused by those who use these platforms to abuse teachers. The Union has written to all relevant ministers on these issues.


Footnotes
[1] Taking screenshots: