From education to employment

How can FE institutions tackle the harmful behaviours faced by marginalised students online?

By Vicki Baars, head of culture transformation at Culture Shift

Young LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to experience hate speech online compared with those who identify as heterosexual, according to research by Nominet.

Seeing distressing content and experiencing bullying and harassment online can impact young people in so many ways, not least their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Our own research into culture in further education (FE) institutions revealed half (49%) of FE students aged 16+ have experienced harassment whilst studying in school or college and three quarters (78%) have witnessed some form of inappropriate behaviour.

Online safety is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to tackling hate speech and ensuring inclusivity, especially for marginalised groups. So, what could FE institutions be doing to support students more and take a step towards eradicating such harmful behaviours, like bullying and harassment?

Set the standard you want to see

FE institutions have a responsibility to set cultural tones and naturally policies and procedures are the go-to, to show what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable. 

To make them effective, these have to be live documents that both teachers, learners and other employees actively engage with. Clearly indicating what your institution’s expectations are and the consequences for not following these expectations are vital, so that policies reflect the culture you want to see. 

When issues do arise, procedures must include support available to overcome these issues. For example, introducing robust reporting and resolution mechanisms so that both employees and students know what their first point of call is when an issue arises.

Everyone is different and the way people prefer to report an issue can vary greatly. So, having a variety of options in place – from dedicated team members to speak to, to an anonymous route – is necessary to ensure that when issues of this nature arise, everyone has a route to report that they feel comfortable with and the opportunity to seek further support, if they wish to do so. 

Anonymous reporting options can be particularly beneficial for young LGBTQ+ people who aren’t out yet. This allows them to be supported and protected without fear of being forced into a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Beyond policies and procedures, representation is everything. This includes having strong LGBTQ+ role models and members of staff from different backgrounds, as well as representation within the curriculum and the celebration of awareness days and months, such as Bi Visibility Day and International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Representation isn’t just necessary to prevent bullying and harassment, it’s vital to creating a culture where students can see that they are included and feel safe and connected.

Engage learners

One of the trickiest elements FE institutions face when trying to prevent bullying and harassment online and ensuring students feel safe and included is that they often don’t have the means to moderate behaviour in such spaces. 

Conversations often take place in smaller groups without a staff member present to step in when problematic behaviour arises. When bullying and harassment does take place in smaller groups, it can have a more harmful impact as it can feel more personal as opposed to when more general statements are made about a group.

This is why engaging learners in coming up with responses is so crucial, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+ or, for example, are ethnically diverse or neurodivergent. Giving students a voice means they can specify the issues that impact them and solutions can be more targeted. 

It’s also vital to arm learners with the skills to overcome issues when they spot them. For example, encouraging peer to peer intervention by making bystander and upstander training a part of the curriculum. 

Empowering students by teaching them what to do or say in challenging situations can give them the courage to speak out when they see something which goes against the school’s culture. This also helps further cement the behaviours you want to see.

As well as helping learners know what to do or say, it’s also important to dismantle disinformation.

Beyond the college gates

Positive culture doesn’t stop at the college gates, especially when conversations venture online or onto social media. 

Currently, the government is in the midst of introducing the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation that gives OFCOM more power when regulating online content and ultimately protecting people from harmful content online. Much like with school and college policies, to make it a real success, clarity over what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour is vital. 

But while the government, OFCOM and social platforms need to come together to ensure online safety, there are collaborations that can happen much closer to home to help ensure FE students are safe online, for example parents. 

Parents can play a big role in working with the schools and colleges to promote online safety. For example, they can utilise parental controls to manage time spent on digital devices in the home and block features they don’t want their children to have access to. 

Parental controls can also play a part in opening up conversations. For example, if their children have been searching about a particular topic, parents can open up discussions at home and work together with the education provider to create safe spaces where students can learn and overcome issues.

The facelessness of online platforms is making it more challenging to tackle bullying and harassment, especially for those from marginalised groups. Policies need to be rigorous and well communicated. By engaging all students, parents, guardians and of course all members of staff, procedures can become more targeted to really eradicate negative behaviours within FE institutions.

By Vicki Baars, head of culture transformation at Culture Shift

Related Articles