News & Features » News

iBULLIES

by


;It used to be simple to identify a bully: He was the rough kid that demanded your lunch money on the playground, or the girl who encouraged her friends to pick on you for your fashion sense.

;

;But times change, and so does bullying. It's gone online. Cyber-bullies – kids who use cell-phone cameras and sites like MySpace and YouTube to taunt their victims – have become a problem for school districts.

;

;As a rule, schools don't allow students to access social networking sites during school hours, so cyber-bullying is largely created at home, when parents, not teachers and administrators, are in charge. That raises a separate issue: Should school districts even be involved in something that happens when school's out?

;

;Orange County Public Schools thinks so, and the district plans to aggressively take on cyber-bullying, even if it happens at home. Administrators added a clause to the district's current Code of Student Conduct, directed primarily at high-school students, to curb cyber-bullying. The move immediately prompted a debate regarding whether or not the schools can enforce the rule. Who decides what is and isn't in violation of the school code? What about free speech?

;

;"We're not denying that jurisdiction is a problem," says Bob Neff, area administrator for the county's North Learning Community. "We're stepping outside the box on that; we understand that."

;

;To address legality issues, Neff says district administrators and lawyers will be involved in enforcement. Nothing has cropped up yet this school year, which only started a few weeks ago, but last year the district got about one complaint of cyber-bullying per week, Neff says.

;

;The American Civil Liberties Union already has warned it will sue the district if students are punished for actions happening on their own time.

;

;"For a student to be suspended or punished for anything that takes place outside of school hours is unconstitutional," says ACLU Central Chapter president George Crossley. "No cases favor a child being punished at public school when he or she does something at home – if they even [did anything]. They can only track to the computer, not the person."

;

;Crossley says three lawyers who reviewed the district's policy preventing "cyber-stalking, bullying/cyber-bullying, coercion, extortion, making threats of violence or harm, or other computer related crimes that impact the educational environment" concluded it was unconstitutional because of jurisdiction. It also raises problems with free speech.

;

;"They certainly are not in good shape; no court will decide in favor of them," Crossley says.

;

;ACLU Central Florida Region Director Glenn Katon references a Pittsburgh case filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania in January 2006 after a high-school boy was suspended for 10 days for creating a parody website that included offensive comments about the school's principal. The ACLU argued that school officials can't punish students for constitutionally protected speech posted on the Internet from home computers unless it causes substantial and material disruption at school. While the site may have inflicted emotional distress, the ACLU said, it was still protected by the First Amendment. The case is pending.

;;

;On the rise

;Pam Riley, executive director of Students Against Violence Everywhere, says cyber- ;bullying is on the rise nationwide. About one out of every four students reports being bullied within the last year, she says.

;

;"Kids are becoming more skillful [with computers] at a younger age," Riley says. "There's more kids on the Internet, so you see a lot more behavior that can translate into tragic circumstances."

;

;She notes that many of the districts that have been successful in reducing the problem have relied on supervision of computer use, blocking access to certain sites, reviewing the content posted online at school and implementing anti-bullying programs with a peer mediation component. Riley says she didn't know of any district trying to crack down on students' after-school computer habits, though she thinks a precedent exists: Athletic programs typically sanction or remove a student for off-campus behavior deemed inappropriate.

;

;"I'm not sure if it's good or bad at this point," she says. "The problem that comes in is with the policing of it. How are you going to enforce that?"

;

;That's what Daryla Bungo, student services director for the Osceola County School District, wants to know. A handful of Osceola students have received punishments ranging from counseling to detention or suspension for sending offensive text messages at school, sharing graphic cell-phone pictures or bringing in items from home, under a blanket harassment and bullying section in the student code of conduct. But if it's off campus and after hours, the district can't do anything, Bungo says.

;

;"If it's something outside in the community, we can't address it."

;

;That doesn't surprise Neff, who says he doesn't know of another Florida county that has taken cyber-bullying enforcement this far.

;

;He believes the district will be able to resolve most bullying complaints on campus with parental involvement, even if they originated at home. But he's ready to employ detention or suspension if need be.

;

;And cyber-bullying has caused problems, says Neff. Last year, a group of high-school students took a cell-phone picture of an overweight teen girl, without her knowledge, and posted them on the web with comments such as "fat slob." The girl, whose self-esteem already teetered at a dangerously low level, didn't want to come to school again after it was discovered.

;

;The district wasn't able to do much in that scenario because the taunting occurred outside school hours.

;

;"We don't want it to be a tool to give schools carte blanche for suspensions. … It's a work in progress," Neff says. "This is getting out of hand, and no one steps out because of jurisdiction."

dsheffield@orlandoweekly.com

comment