Schools Waiting for Legal Guidance to Set Clear Policies on Cyberbullying

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As I stated in this blog on Jan 21, the lack of policies and preparedness in K-12 schools has increased the risks of cyberbullying doing damage – to teachers, to administrators, and most importantly to children.

Since Jan 21, the news has been full of examples of cyberbullying – with a new case being reported nearly every day. (To see the stories that we covered, select In The News from the categories at the right.) I was surprised, frankly, by the frequency of the continued incidents. This is a serious and significant issue, which needs urgent attention.

So, why is it that school policies are inconsistent, at best, across districts, states, and across the nation? Some states, like Rhode Island, are in the process of holding town meetings to try to determine what their policy should be. Some districts have policies – but are concerned if their policies will hold up under legal scrutiny. Children are getting caught in the middle.

Two articles in Education Week have shed some light. In the first place, as it turns out, the schools are waiting for a few significant rulings from the courts which have been pending since last June as well as specific guidance promised at the national level from the Dept of Ed this spring.

What is the Legal Standing of Cyberbullying in the School?

As we learned last week in a CA case, one student’s cyberbullying may be another student’s free speech. In fact, for the school to discipline a cyberbully requires that the incident cause a “substantially and materially” disrupts the school environment. This stated in a 7-2 ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which sets the precedent by which cyberbullying is being measured.

But, how is a school to react when the cyberbullying takes place off school grounds, not during school time, and out of the view of school administrators?

As reported in Education Week, two separate but very similar cases – which coincidentally hit the courts at the same time last spring – prove the point that the courts are likely to judge the same act of cyberbullying very differently. Which leaves teachers and administrators in a quandary as to how to react and respond when cyberbullying incidents are reported to them.

In the cases cited, both involved a teen setting up a fake Facebook account for the school principal. In both cases, the school responded identically – by suspending the student. However, the courts responded differently – and in Feb 2010 ruled that only one of the two suspensions was appropriate by law.

However, both rulings have been vacated by the full 3rd Circuit court, which reheard both cases in June. No further clarification from the court has yet been offered. But, when the clarification comes, it will help further define how cyberbullying incidents should be handled by schools. Some watching these cases expect them to go all the way to the US Surpreme Court, in which case the rulings would help to clarify cyberbullying laws explicitly nationwide.

Who is Most Likely to do the Bullying?

In a second article, Education Week reports today that the American Sociological Review has published results from a bullying study, in this month’s edition. In brief, the kids in the middle of the school’s social hierarchy are more likely to be the bullies – as a strategy to either maintain or improve their status. And, the relative ease of online bullying as compared to the old-fashioned shove-em-against-the-locker variety, appears to offer more kids in the middle the opportunity to use this strategy.

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About Kelly Baig

Kelly Baig is a concerned parent of a 13 yo girl and independent marketing consultant with insatiable curiousity about all things online. Kelly runs a successful marketing services firm, WaveBreak Marketing, in operation since 2007. Kelly has over 20 years of experience in B2B marketing, including social media and online communications for clients primarily in high-tech. In her spare time, Kelly can be found training for the triathlon at her local Y, knitting, walking her two Yorkies, and trying to learn how to cook Indian food for her husband.

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