August 4, 2008 in City

Schools address high-tech bullying

Educators debate when, how to get involved
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Gossip G had eighth-graders talking at Cheney Middle School last year, what with her barbs about certain classmates’ hygiene and her speculation about their sexual experiences.

“It became like a soap opera for other students,” said Principal Mike Stark. “They were getting online every night to read the latest,” while simultaneously fearing they’d become the subject of one of her anonymous postings on the Bebo social-networking site.

Speculation grew about the author, with suspects losing friends and becoming the subjects of yet more gossip. The real perpetrator was never discovered.

“There were kids who wanted to transfer to another school to get away from it,” Stark said.

Lasting a couple of months, the Gossip G postings were the most disruptive incident of electronic bullying that Stark faced last school year, but far from the only one. The most innocuous were insults in e-mails or text-messages to specific students; the worst carried threats of beatings.

Nearly all originated during off-school hours, leaving Stark to ponder how deeply to get involved. In which cases should he discipline students, rather than simply notifying parents? Which warranted notification of police? Which should he simply let pass?

It’s a dilemma the Washington Legislature says schools cannot avoid.

Since 2002 the state has required public schools to adopt anti-bullying policies. Now, as a result of legislation signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in May, those policies must be amended to make clear that electronic bullying is included.

The policy scheduled for a vote this month by the Spokane school board is typical. “Any intentional written message or image, including those that are electronically transmitted” is cause for discipline if it “has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education” or disrupts school, the policy states.

Mead School District adopted similar language in June. Central Valley adopted its policy during a recent school board meeting. All other districts either have made the change or must do so soon.

Other states, including Idaho, have enacted similar laws in recent years. The attention is fueled in part by a few high-profile cases in which parents believe cyber-bullying caused their teens to commit suicide.

And while such tragic consequences are rare, authorities say, electronic bullying has become commonplace as students’ use of technology has increased.

“Practically every student in school has a cell phone that they text on and probably half – maybe more – have a MySpace page,” said Spokane County sheriff’s Deputy David Morris.

Morris estimates that incidents of electronic bullying have tripled during his three years as a resource officer in the Deer Park School District. Some threats he investigated last year led the school to take disciplinary actions and resulted in police reports; Morris warned the offending students that charges could be filed if there were any more threats.

One case, involving “some very severe, pretty scary threats” against specific students, resulted in the arrest of three former students on charges of cyber-stalking. Morris wouldn’t provide more details because the accused girls are minors and the case has yet to be resolved.

Nationwide, two-thirds of teens and one-sixth of grade-school children have had “mean, threatening or embarrassing things said about them online,” according to a survey commissioned by Fight Crime; Invest in Kids, a national nonprofit organization of law enforcement, prosecutors and others. And 10 percent of surveyed teens said they’ve been threatened online.

Such surveys confirm that most cases are never reported to adults. Stark said kids in his school have told him they’re afraid of losing their cell phones or access to the Internet if their parents knew they were being harassed.

Cheney School Board member Marcie Estrellado said most parents are unsuspecting because they generally lag behind their children when it comes to technological knowledge.

“My own son had a MySpace (page) and I didn’t even know it,” said Estrellado, who worked with Stark and other Cheney officials on a program educating parents about the electronic world.

“It’s not a MySpace-bashing kind of movement… you need technology to get along in the world,” said Estrellado. “It’s just getting to know more about it.”

Estrellado said students’ online experiences outside school have a big effect on their ability to pay attention in class – everything from the disruption caused by Gossip G to the hurt experienced by kids who don’t make classmates’ MySpace friends lists.

But just how deeply educators should get involved remains an open question.

In a mass e-mail asking 300 random readers whether they’ve had experiences with cyber-bullying, The Spokesman-Review heard from some who said districts are overstepping their authority.

“The schools have no business in disciplining students for events that did not occur on school grounds or otherwise under the schools’ direct control,” wrote one, Neil Fitzgerald.

“Who is supposed to do this enforcement?” asked Robert Crabb, who’s been an educator for 34 years. “How many hours do you want to waste doing it?”

Stephanie Lister, a U.S. attorney who helps teach adults and kids about online dangers, said schools already have set boundaries with traditional bullying. They get involved, for instance, if a student’s academic performance drops because of bullying in his neighborhood. The same standard should apply when the harassment is electronic, she said.

One expert commenting for a First Amendment Center analysis said that existing case law has left unanswered the question of educators’ authority in cases of “truly harmful off-campus online speech” by one student against another. But that expert, Nancy Willard, of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, noted that a 1969 case has been broadly interpreted to give schools authority to get involved in any off-school activities that could cause “a substantial disruption of school activities.”

And even if electronic harassment hasn’t disrupted school, “that doesn’t mean that the school district would not still notify parents or, in some cases, law-enforcement agencies,” said Mike Ainsworth, executive director of student support services for Spokane Public Schools.

Other districts do the same.

When Estrellado was contacted last year by another parent concerned about a Cheney student’s MySpace Web site, the pair debated whether to contact the boy’s parents. Although it included content that was violent and sexual in nature, there were no threats.

Estrellado asked a school official what to do, only to learn that a school counselor had already called the parents.

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or danh@spokesman.com.

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