Schools Uncertain How to Handle Cyberbullying

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Cyberbullying is a growing concern in schools. Credit: Getty Images


Schools today are facing difficult and complex decisions on whether -- and how -- they should deal with cyberbullying.

High tech bullying, which ranges from barrages of teasing texts to sexually harassing group websites, is a growing issue, according to The New York Times.

A 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center reports that one in five middle school students was found to be affected by cyberbullying, The Times reports, and studies show online harassment can begin as early as fourth grade.

With the problem escalating in frequency and severity -- cyberbullying has been linked to teen suicide -- parents are looking to schools to help protect their children. However, many educators feel unprepared, or are unwilling to handle these situations and unsure of the extent of their authority. School district discipline codes often say little about incidents that occur over student cell phones, home computers and off-campus speech, according to the newspaper.

Whether resolving these conflicts should be the responsibility of the family, police or schools remains an open question, The Times reports, and administrators who decide to get involved say they often face both practical and legal constraints.

"I have parents who thank me for getting involved, and parents who say, 'It didn't happen on school property, stay out of my life,' " Mike Rafferty, a middle school principal in Old Saybrook, Conn., tells The Times.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have enacted bullying statutes, according to the Anti-Defamation League. However, less than half offer guidance as to whether schools can intervene in bullying involving "electronic communication," which nearly always occurs outside of school and intensifies on weekends, when kids are more likely to be socializing online, The Times reports.

These issues have begun to crop up in state and federal courts, but rulings have been contradictory and much is still unclear and left to be determined, The Times says.

A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies, and one parent, Evan S. Cohen, took on an entire school district to defend his daughter when she was suspended from Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif. for cyberbullying.

"What incensed me," Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, tells The Times, "was that these people were going to suspend my daughter for something that happened outside of school."

The judge in the case overturned the suspension based on a legal precedent, which maintained that the school could only impose discipline when a student's speech interferes substantially with the school's educational mission.

However, affirming the lack of clarity in these cases, Nancy Willard, author of "Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens," tells The Times that the judge could have upheld the suspension using another standard from the same case, which looks at whether a student's hurtful speech collided with "the rights of other students to be secure."

The Times goes on to cite a number of additional court cases with contradictory rulings, adding that online student speech has not yet been addressed by the Supreme Court.

Cyberbullying is also taking its toll on schools, as educators report they are spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issue. In April, after the burden of resolving cyber conflicts had become too onerous, Tony Orsini, principal at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., sent an e-mail to parents that made national news.

"There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site," Orsini wrote. If children were attacked through sites or texting, he added, "IMMEDIATELY GO TO THE POLICE!"

Earlier this year, Orsini was contacted by parents whose daughter received a dozen shocking, sexually explicit threats from the cell phone of a 12-year-old boy. The parents demanded action, yet Orsini initially declined because the incident occurred out of school and on a weekend, he tells The Times.

The girl's insistent parents refused to contact the boy's parents because it was too awkward, they told Orsini, and they refused to contact the police because they didn't want to be subjected to a protracted criminal investigation with an uncertain outcome. So they pleaded with Orsini to help them, and he finally relented, reports The Times.

Orsini tells the newspaper an investigation over the course of the next few days necessitated the involvement of an assistant principal, guidance counselor, social worker and an elementary school principal, in addition to himself.

Eventually, the school determined that the texts had most likely been sent by another student who had found the boy's phone. Having already devoted 10 hours to the incident, Orsini told the parents the school could do no more, aside from offering the girl counseling.

"All we are doing is reacting," Orsini tells The Times. "We can't seem to get ahead of the curve."

Related: New York Lawmakers Agree: Bullying is Bad, Bill Sent to Governor

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.