When Students Bully Their Teachers: Legal Challenges

In 2008, the National Issues in Education Poll [“Poll”], commissioned by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, published a report on Canadians’ growing awareness of issues related to cyberbullying in schools.[1] Interesting findings of the Poll included:

  • 9 in 10 Canadians believed that an effective way of preventing cyberbullying by students was for parents to become more knowledgeable and more responsible in monitoring their child’s online activities and usage of digital devices
  • 34% of Canadians knew of students in their community who had been targeted by cyberbullying in the 2007-08 school year[2]
  • Even more surprising, 1 in 5 survey participants knew of a teacher who had been bullied online in 2007-08 by his or her students — a statistic shedding light on the fact that students bullying other students electronically do not exclusively represent cyberbullying fact patterns[3]

Antiauthority bullying has received far less media scrutiny and academic attention since the issue of cyberbullying catapulted into public awareness.[4] While under-theorized, the issue of cyberbullying of educators by students is as insidious in nature as student-on-student bullying. Indeed, antiauthority cyberbullying can also occur “every day, at every hour, and with an infinite audience for distribution — all with minimal cost and increased potential for creativity from the safety of a home outside the reach of school authorities.”[5] Student-on-educator bullying, however, implicates a different set of legal considerations to be weighed.

More specifically, school officials face, at a minimum, three particular legal challenges when they confront cases of cyberbullying of educators by students, namely,

  • The duty to maintain order and discipline in schools
  • The duty to respect freedom of expression of students
  • The duty to demonstrate a sufficient connection between the misbehaviour and the school[6]

1. The duty to maintain order and discipline in schools

The duty to maintain order and discipline in schools refers to the statutory duty of both principals and teachers to protect the “learning environment in schools from danger and disruption and to promote healthy interactions among members of the school community.”[7] For instance, under section 265(1)(a) of the Ontario Education Act, principals are mandated to “maintain proper order and discipline in the school.”[8] This section undoubtedly comes into play when students promulgate hateful messages online regarding their teachers’ ability to instruct a class. If an instructor’s authority is undermined online, it can then trickle into the classroom and challenge the order and discipline required under section 265(1)(a).

2. The duty to respect freedom of expression of students

The duty to respect freedom of expression of students refers to both teachers’ and school officials’ duty to respect the constitutional right of students under section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [“Charter”]. Specifically, section 2(b) guarantees to students (and all other Canadians) the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”[9] As a general rule, any communication that disseminates non-violent content is shielded under the Charter.[10] That being said, Dr. Shariff has argued that, while online threats do not consist of physical violence, targets of the threats still perceive them as being a real form of violent expression.[11] Furthermore, freedom of expression is not an absolute right. Rather, under section 1 of the Charter, freedom of expression is subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”[12] Teachers cyberbullied by their students, consequently, can legally challenge a student’s right to free expression if by doing so they are promoting values consonant with a free and democratic society.[13]

3. The duty to demonstrate a sufficient connection between the misbehaviour and the school

The duty to demonstrate a sufficient connection between the misbehaviour and the school refers to a recent strain of Canadian jurisprudence where courts have ruled that schools can only discipline students for conduct that occurs off school grounds if such conduct has a sufficient nexus or connection to the school.[14] In other words, if a student uses the Internet to publish a harassing or defamatory message regarding a teacher off school property, the school would subsequently have the onus of demonstrating that that behaviour is sufficiently connected to the school in such a way that warrants disciplinary action.[15]

In short, and in light of the above, we encourage our readers at Define the Line to have open and candid conversations with children regarding the possible legal consequences and challenges of both student-on-student and student-on-educator cyberbullying. Indeed, becoming a good digital citizen necessarily implicates respecting the rights and obligations of both our peers and those who are in positions of authority.

For anyone interested in learning more about student-on-educator bullying, please refer to Dr. Shariff’s texts, “Cyber-dilemmas in the New Millennium: School Obligations to Provide Student Safety in a Virtual School Environment” (2005) 40 McGill Journal of Education 467; and Cyber-bullying: Issues and Solutions for the School, Classroom and the Home (London: Routledge, 2008).


[1] Canadian Teachers’ Federation, “Cyber-bullying in schools: National poll shows Canadians’ growing awareness” (11 July 2008), online: http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Newsroom/news.aspx?NewsID=-873341035.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ruth Broster & Ken Brien, “Cyber-bullying of Educators by Students: Evolving Legal and Policy Developments” (2010) 20 Educ. & L. J. 35 at 41 [Broster & Brien].

[4] Ibid at 35.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Broster & Brien, supra note 3 at 44.

[7] Ibid at 42.

[8] Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2.

[9] Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c. 11 [Charter].

[10] A. Wayne MacKay and Janet Burt-Gerrans, “Student Freedom of Expression: Violent Content and the Safe School Balance” (2005) 40 McGill Journal of Education 423.

[11] Shaheen Shariff, “Cyber-dilemmas in the New Millennium: School Obligations to Provide Student Safety in a Virtual School Environment” (2005) 40 McGill Journal of Education 467.

[12] Chartersupra note 8 at s.1.

[13] Broster & Brien, supra note 3 at 44.

[14] Eric M. Roher, “Confronting Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace: Cyber-bullying in Schools” (November/December 2007) CTF Economic & Member Services, online: http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Documents/Priorities/EN/cyberbullying/CyberFacebook.pdf at 22.

[15] Broster & Brien, supra note 3 at 44.