As school year starts, states tackle teen cyberbullying

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2012 

— Bullying used to be confrontations, starting rumors and making snide comments in person. Now it’s as easy as posting a comment on Facebook or tweeting anonymously about a classmate.

As educators and administrators prepare for another hectic school year, they’re also getting ready to take a new stance against cyberbullying.

In Texas, for example, a law comes into effect this school year that requires schools to have policies for dealing with cyberbullying that occurs on school property or at school events. In Kansas, the education department launched a new anti-bullying hotline last week to supplement a 2008 law that mandates that schools have cyberbullying policies.

Beyond that, 11 states are reviewing proposals to update or implement cyberbullying laws.

All are attempts to bring the state’s approaches to bullying into the 21st century.

“For many people of a certain age, the word bullying tends to conjure up an image of a schoolyard skirmish, but in 2012 that’s not what bullying is at all,” said Chuck Smith, the deputy executive director at Equality Texas, a Texas advocacy group that aims to get rid of gender discrimination.

More Internet access and the widespread use of smartphones have helped lead to increases in cyberbullying, according to Catherine Bradshaw, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“In one instant they can send out thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of messages,” Bradshaw said.

The suicide of 13-year-old Hope Witsell in 2009 showed how damaging cyberbullying can be. The teenager from Ruskin, Fla., killed herself after a photo of her breast that she’d sent to a boy she liked leaked to the entire school and other students then taunted her and called her names, according to news reports at the time.

Policymakers have tried to counter the increased risk the only way they know how – with legislation.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a collaborative online project run by professors from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University, 45 states now have laws that bar electronic harassment, although only 15 states specifically refer to “cyberbullying.”

The Texas legislation, which passed last year with bipartisan support, requires school boards to incorporate cyberbullying prevention into their school codes of conduct and policies.

Texas’ new law defines bullying as “engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district.”

Kansas’ recent approach didn’t involve legislation. Instead, the Kansas State Department of Education partnered with the Kansas Children’s Service League, an organization that offers educational programs designed to ensure child safety, to launch a bullying-prevention hotline.

With the new help line – which can be reached via text, phone or email – teachers, victims and parents can talk anonymously with trained professionals 24 hours a day.

“It’s always been and it is true today that we want a kid to go to school without worrying about their safety,” said Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner at the Kansas Department of Education. “We want our schools to be the safest place they can be.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a particularly hard line against cyberbullying in July by signing a law that requires teachers to report incidents of online bullying to school administrators within 24 hours. The law will go into effect next July.

However, there are significant limitations to the new approaches, experts said.

The Texas law, for example, doesn’t mandate training and it doesn’t explicitly give school officials the power to punish students who cyberbully in their own homes. That leaves the school’s jurisdiction open to interpretation, a problem that affects much bullying legislation across the United States.

Further, the Texas law is unclear about whether teachers should control cyberbullying that occurs outside the classroom.

Smith of Equality Texas said that with the new law, teachers would be capable of making that determination as they tried to maintain discipline in their classrooms.

“When it starts to disrupt the operation of a classroom then it can still be considered,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be someone in the back of the room with a phone.”

Not all districts support the new law, Smith said.

“The limited amount of negative response has been from some administrators who didn’t feel it was necessary,” he said.

Decreasing education budgets across the states also make combating cyberbullying more difficult. Texas legislators ultimately had to eliminate mandatory training from the state’s law because of budget constraints, Smith said.

“In other states that have mandatory training we tend to see better results and greater implementation,” he said.

Some districts, such as the Houston Independent School District, have mandated training anyway, said Cory Craft, the manager of the district’s counseling and guidance department.

In Kansas, just as in Texas, teachers and educators are impotent when incidents occur away from school property or school trips.

Parent and local police are responsible for handling any cyberbullying that occurs outside the classroom, said Dennis, of the Kansas Department of Education.

“If somebody does something at home on their own computer, then the school wouldn’t have jurisdiction,” Dennis said.

It’s a legal question, said Garry McGiboney, the associate superintendent of policy at the Georgia Department of Education. Georgia education officials are waiting for schools’ jurisdiction to be determined in court. The state requires every school to have a bullying policy that includes cyberbullying.

Other states are continuing to press the issue.

In Indiana, state Sen. Tom Wyss, a Republican from Fort Wayne in the northeast, is among those who’ve supported cyberbullying legislation in his state. New state Senate proposals are looking to address the issue, which Indiana doesn’t currently legislate against.

Wyss proposed a bill last year that would create a paper trail in cases of cyberbullying, but it was defeated after religious groups claimed that it unfairly advanced a gay agenda, he said.

Since the same Senate committee would hear these new proposals, Wyss said he wasn’t optimistic about their chances for success.

“We’re still living with legislation that was appropriate in 2005,” he said. “There are changes that have happened.”

To Mikaela Carson, Miss Kansas 2012 and the founder of Anti-Bullying Lifelines and Education, an initiative in which Carson, who’s 17, travels to Kansas schools to encourage other students to stamp out bullying, the recent increase in cyberbullying isn’t surprising.

“It seems like an evolution of the social bullying that’s been going on for years,” she said.

Email: kkomolafe@mcclatchydc.com

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