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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SM for Social Good: NJ Teen Fights Bullying with Text Messaging

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As reported by the Associated Press and CBS, a 14yo teen in New Jersey has launched an anti-bullying program which uses text messaging systems as “report and support” lines for students.

After being the target of bullies and seeing the devastating effects on peers, Ashley Craig spent 8 months researching and planning before presenting her program proposal to the High Point Board of Education.

“She Designed the System Based on Her Generation”

Ashley’s program is called Students Against Being Bullied. As its first step, it relies on two text messaging systems and email for teens. The two text lines are monitored between 7am and 5pm daily. The first line is intended for teens to report bullying incidents in real-time. The second is for teens to request support and counseling assistance. Email is available at all times.

School administrators and counselors will monitor the text and email, and provide appropriate assistance.

“I hope that students will no longer feel as though they have to hold back on what they are experiencing or what they are watching other students experience,” Ashley is reported as stating. “With this ‘Report and Support Line,’ students will no longer feel as if they have no one to talk to, that the only way to resolve their issues is to take their own lives.”

Ashley designed the system using texting and email, based on her knowledge of how teens communicate – along with her research showing that most teens own mobile phones with text capabilities. After listening to Ashley’s proposal, the school board approved the plan. They will pay for the two text plans required to support the plan, estimated at $900 annually.

New Jersey is noted as having the strictest anti-bullying policy in the nation, since passing a statute in November of 2010.

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