A few weeks ago, Hofstra Law School organized a one day conference on cyberbullying. I had the opportunity, in my capacity as Hofstra’s Provost, to say a few words at the beginning of the conference but I stayed for the keynote address because as a parent and also as a school board member, the topic has special importance for me. In my remarks I mentioned a news story that attracted major attention a few years ago where a 49 year old mom was convicted on misdemeanor charges for posing as a 16 year old boy on MySpace.com. This mom, Lori Drew, chose to pursue, woo, and then reject a 13 year old girl, Megan Meier. Along the way to make sure that Megan was as humiliated as possible, the mom/16 year old boy made sure to forward all the secrets learned in the relationship to Megan’s circle of friends. The reason for the mom’s involvement was a falling out between Megan and Lori Drew’s daughter. The end result was the tragic and needless suicide death of Megan Meier. What could the mom have been thinking?
I am no different than most parents of young and teenage kids in worrying about cyberbullying. None of us want our kids to be victims but this is certainly a more sophisticated, more anonymous, potentially more vicious and more difficult to confront form of bullying. What is cyberbullying ? According to the National Cyber Alert System definition:
Cyberbullying refers to the new, and growing, practice of using technology to harass, or bully, someone else. Bullies used to be restricted to methods such as physical intimidation, postal mail, or the telephone. Now, developments in electronic media offer forums such as email, instant messaging, web pages, and digital photos to add to the arsenal. Computers, cell phones, and PDAs are new tools that can be applied to an old practice.
Forms of cyberbullying can range in severity from cruel or embarrassing rumors to threats, harassment, or stalking. It can affect any age group; however, teenagers and young adults are common victims, and cyberbullying is a growing problem in schools.
What makes cyberbullying such a problem is that the internet provides the protection of relative anonymity which in turn can increase the intensity of the bullying given that anonymity.
As educators and as parents we have an important role in protecting children and young adults from these anonymous attacks. First of all as parents, we need to clearly state that cyberbullying is unacceptable. We need to comfort the kids who have been bullied and we need to age-appropriately punish any child involved in these activities. Adults also need, in this and so many other areas, to model appropriate behavior for their kids and other kids. Lori Drew was clearly not a role model; she was a major contributor to a major problem.
As a parent and as a school board member, I want and expect the schools to play a very active role in combating cyberbullying and there is considerable activity that I’m aware of that has made a difference. Anti-bullying programs, codes of conduct, anti-bullying pledges, and parental education are all taking place locally and in school districts across the country. In an article on bullying in the October 27th issue of Newsday, there were statistics included for Long Island from the New York State Education Department showing that being proactive is working well with “a nearly 11 percent decline on the Island in incidents reported as intimidation or bullying from 2006-2007 to 2008-2009.”
These statistics are impressive but I still have concerns in regard to our schools confronting this serious problem.
One is the question of what schools can and can’t do. As noted by stopcyberbullying.com:
When schools try and get involved by disciplining the student for cyberbullying actions that took place off-campus and outside of school hours, they are often sued for exceeding their authority and violating the student’s free speech right. They also, often lose. Schools can be very effective brokers in working with the parents to stop and remedy cyberbullying situations. They can also educate the students on cyberethics and the law. If schools are creative, they can sometimes avoid the claim that their actions exceeded their legal authority for off-campus cyberbullying actions. We recommend that a provision is added to the school’s acceptable use policy reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of student while in school. This makes it a contractual, not a constitutional, issue.
And the second concern is economics . We are entering an era of stringent tax caps, which of course have an appeal to a public that feels overtaxed or worse in a difficult economic time. What will happen to programs in areas such as cyberbullying as we try to limit our expenditures? Will they remain? Clearly not all these initiatives cost money and even those that do, cost limited amounts. But they are often not free and so require resources; if cutbacks happen these programs may be vulnerable. We should all exert our influence to make sure that this doesn’t happen.