Schools move to stop ‘cyberbullying’
Wall Street Journal
Vail, CO Colorado
Kylie Kenney heard a crescendo of whispers and jeers as she moved through an otherwise unremarkable eighth-grade school day. The reason: Word had spread of a Web site posted by some of her peers, titled “Kill Kylie Incorporated.”
The site featured a list of crude insults, beneath the heading: “She’s queer because. …” It seemed everyone in school had read it. Distressed, she reported the site to the school but says that the impact of the bullying was so severe that she eventually changed schools. “I still have emotional damage,” says Kylie, now a 10th-grader.
Kylie’s story underscores a growing problem for school administrators and local officials: how to handle so-called cyberbullying. Emboldened by the anonymity available online, a bully can be nastier ” and with the click of a mouse, have a far broader audience ” than in the past.
What may once have been snickers in the hallway can now be an excruciatingly public humiliation spread via email, text messaging and online teen forums.
Schools and local officials have been hearing increasing calls from parents to step in. But educators are torn between the desire to stop bad behavior and the limits on their ability to intervene. Much of the badmouthing takes place on home computers and off school grounds, where schools have little or no authority.
An official at Kylie’s former school, Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vt., declined to discuss specifics of her case, though an attorney says, “The school acted appropriately in all respects.”
Now, school officials, states and even Web sites are taking action. Educators and state legislatures in Florida, South Carolina, Utah, Oregon and elsewhere are creating new policies that deal with cyberbullying, either incorporating electronic harassment into existing bullying policies, or spelling it out as an entirely new threat.
In doing so, they are often crafting language that allows educators to intervene even in off-campus incidents if the activity affects the school environment.
MySpace.com, the popular networking site, last fall released a guide for school administrators, advising them to contact the site about false or offensive user profiles or to report threats or cyberbullying.
The challenge is that students, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights that school officials can’t cross. But in Florida, the Pasco County school board added language about cyberbullying to its code of conduct for the current school year.
Its language states that “the school board has no duty to regulate or review off-campus Internet messages, statements postings, or acts” but adds that when those acts “threaten violence against another student or otherwise disrupts the learning environment or orderly conduct of the school,” the school can take action, from conferencing in parents and students, to expulsion.
Linda Crosthwait, assistant principal at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kan., has her own rule of thumb for mean-spirited rumors online: “If it’s carried into the classroom in some way ” a fight in school or something said in school ” then (the posting) becomes a piece of what we can deal with,” she says.
Jill Eckel, principal at Sussex County Charter School for Technology, a middle school in Sparta, N.J., recently got wind of a student’s MySpace page laced with discussion of an upcoming fight involving students at her school. But the brawl was to take place away from campus.
“I sat for a long time, thinking, ‘Is it my responsibility to call the parents?'” Ms. Eckel recalls. “I’ve had parents tell me it’s not my business” to patrol online activity.
In the end, she says, she alerted a parent she trusted, who in turn got in touch with the parents involved.
At Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, N.J., principal Msgr. Kieran McHugh aims to keep it simple. He outright banned the use of MySpace last school year after hearing about students posting content he considered inappropriate.
Now, “we monitor it,” says Father McHugh, who has contacted parents when students have been found posting on the site. That, he says, has eliminated any further instances.
As a private organization, a Catholic school has more leeway over student conduct than does a public school, since it isn’t bound by the same First Amendment rules that limit government suppression of speech. By the same token, a private religious school can mandate prayer or religious lessons, which public schools may not.
Several states passed laws or other measures in 2006 that addressed bullying that can happen in cyberspace. Idaho’s law that seeks to prohibit student bullying and harassment allows that such acts can be “committed through the use of a land line, car phone or wireless telephone or through the use of data or computer software that is accessed through a computer, computer system or computer network.”
South Carolina’s Safe School Climate Act to prevent school bullying includes “electronic communication” in its definition of harassment.
In a new rule that went into effect earlier this month, Utah’s State Board of Education amended its existing discipline guidelines for districts to include policies specific to bullying. The changes also included a definition of cyberbullying, requiring districts to offer students and teachers training that would broadly address “electronic means for aggression inside or outside of school.”
” Story via Associated Press
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