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In Several States, A Push to Stem Cyberbullying

Most of the Laws Focus on Schools

By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

1. More and more children and teenagers wage war with one another on computers and cellphones. As a result, some states have passed laws to stop harassment, intimidation and threats on the Internet.
2. Most of the laws are aimed at school districts, requiring them to develop policies on cyberbullying -- for example, how to train school staff members or discipline students. At least 13 states have passed such laws, including Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington. A handful of other states are considering similar measures.
3. This week, California becomes the latest state to tackle the issue. Starting today, California schools may suspend or expel students who commit cyberbullying.
4. "This is part of a trend that is happening across the country, which is basically state legislatures telling the school districts that this is an issue they want them to address," said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. "The message is: Do something."
5. Though many schools throughout the nation have developed their own policies, some remain unsure how to handle cyberbullying. It can be time-consuming and difficult to investigate, given the veil of anonymity the Web offers. Educators may not understand the technology that students are using.
6. But the biggest cause of schools' hesitation, educators and legal experts say, is the fine line between protecting students from harassment and observing their right to free speech. As a consequence, some educators take a "not my problem" approach to off-campus cyberbullying, Willard said.
7. According to critics of the cyberbullying laws, that's the right approach. "The problem with these laws is that schools are now trying to control what students say outside of school. And that's wrong," said Aden Fine, a senior staff lawyer with the national legal department of the American Civil Liberties Union. "What students say outside of school -- that's for parents to deal with or other government bodies to deal with. We have to keep in mind this is free speech we're talking about."
8. But Willard said it is a mistake for school officials not to pay attention to cyberbullying outside of school because escalating harassment often spills onto campus. Research also shows that such bullying leads to students failing in school, avoiding class and considering suicide, she said.
9. Champions and critics of the laws agree that preventive education is a more powerful deterrent to cyberbullying than discipline.

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