Last month I wrote a somewhat humorous poem about Facebook and why I am not a big fan of the site. That article was published on April 19th. On April 20 I found myself at the table (yet again) with a group of quarreling sixth grade girls. While sixth grade girls quarreling about the he-said, she-said stuff is pretty routine, the root of this consternation stemmed from a Facebook exchange between two of the girls. When asked how this whole thing started, Salina replied: “Jenna said mean stuff on Facebook to me about Stacie. Then I told Jenna that it was mean and she shouldn’t be telling me that stuff. Then I told Stacie what Jenna was saying about her on Facebook. Then Stacie got mad and she told me that she was going to beat up Jenna. Then Jenna called everyone a skank and everyone got mad and started yelling at each other using really bad language.”
Now, although this Facebook exchange went on outside of school over the weekend, it became the topic of conversation at the lunch table on Monday. It then spilled into recess and ultimately into my office. While I have heard quite a bit about cyberbullying via emails and text messages, this was the first cyberbullying incident I had dealt with regarding Facebook. I asked each of the girls involved if she had a Facebook page and all but one said she did. I also asked them why they allowed certain girls to be on their friends list when they know that some of them will resort to this type of bullying, and most said because they felt they “had to.” This kind of pressure to allow “friends” on one’s site could also be considered a form of bullying, as they feel there may be consequences to shutting some out regardless of their lack of Internet etiquette.
According to the website stopcyberbullying.org, cyberbullying is “when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.” As a public school principal, I can’t legally discipline a student for cyberbullying actions that take place outside of school that don’t result in bodily harm at school. However, when cyberbullying that has taken place outside of school becomes a school issue, as it did today, we must reserve the right to take action if the effects of outside cyberbullying threaten the safety or well-being of the student(s) in school, even if it hasn’t caused bodily harm…yet. Stopcyberbullying.org recommends adding a provision to the school’s acceptable use of the Internet policy, reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to adversely affect the safety and well-being of a student while at school. According to the site, this makes it a contractual, not constitutional issue.
So far, nine states have cyberbullying laws designed to protect children from being harassed, threatened and humiliated online. Two of those states, Arkansas and New Jersey have express language in their laws that allow for school officials to take action against cyber bullies even if the actions take place outside of school.
In a 2007 USA Today article, Koloff reported that “The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed some cyberbullying laws, saying they set up school officials to trample on students' First Amendment rights. The ACLU helped block a proposal last year to expand an Oregon law to include off-campus bullying, arguing that school officials have no right to impose punishment on students for what they do away from school.”
While Minnesota (where I am a principal) enacted a law in 2007 requiring each school district in the state to put policies in place to address the growing problem of cyberbullying, there are no provisions for disciplining students for cyberbully actions. Our Acceptable Use of the Internet policy next school year will definitely not only address cyberbullying, it will include a clause that states something to the effect, “If cyberbullying outside of school becomes an issue in which a student feels threatened or unsafe in any way at school, the principal has the authority to discipline the cyber bully.” It will give the school community the clear message that cyberbullying will not be tolerated and at the very least will give me a little leverage when I need it.
By Nancy Flynn 5/19/09
USA Today, 2-7-2008 States push for cyberbully controls
By Abbott Koloff, USA TODAY