By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009
LOS ANGELES -- In California, a hateful Internet campaign followed sixth-grader Olivia Gardner through three schools. In Vermont, a humiliated Ryan Halligan, 13, took his own life after being encouraged to do so by one of his middle-school peers. And in perhaps the most notorious case, Lori Drew, 49, was recently convicted on misdemeanor charges for posing as a teenage boy on MySpace to woo and then reject 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri, who later hanged herself in her closet.
Such are a few of the anguished stories of cyber-bullying that are increasingly cropping up around the country, as more and more children and teenagers wage war with one another on computers and cellphones. The phenomenon has led to a push among states to pass laws aimed at clamping down on the student-spun harassment, intimidation and threats coursing through the Web.
Most of the laws are aimed at school districts, requiring them to develop policies on cyber-bullying -- 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.
This week, California becomes the latest state to tackle the issue. Starting today, California schools may suspend or expel students who commit cyber-bullying. The law also singles out such harassment as a subject to be addressed by school officials.
"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, an Oregon-based organization that provides research and outreach for parents, educators and policymakers on Internet safety. "The message is: Do something."
Though many schools throughout the nation have developed their own policies, some remain unsure how to handle cyber-bullying. 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.
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. That, Willard said, impels some educators to take a "not my problem" approach to off-campus cyber-bullying.
According to critics of the cyber-bullying 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, which has closely followed such legislation. "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."
Willard said it is a mistake for school officials not to pay attention to cyber-bullying 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 contemplating suicide, she said.
As it is, schools may discipline students for actions outside of class if they disrupt the educational process, said Kim Croyle, a West Virginia lawyer who represents several school boards and lectures nationally on cyber-bullying. If, for instance, a student calls in a bomb threat from outside school or threatens another student so badly that they avoid school, the school could take action.
The real thrust of the state cyber-bullying laws, Croyle said, is setting a clear expectation for students and educators. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out," she said.
Cyber-bullying occurs when a minor is targeted in some form -- threatened, humiliated, harassed -- by another, and it is not to be confused with cyber-stalking or cyber-harassment, which involves an adult. Not limited to the Internet, cyber-bullying can spread by cellphones or other digital devices.
Four in 10 teenagers report that they have experienced some form of cyber-bullying, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the National Crime Prevention Council. It is more common among females than males, and most prevalent among 15- and 16-year-olds, according to the study.
Champions and critics of the laws agree that preventive education is a more powerful deterrent to cyber-bullying than discipline. That notion is supported by Patricia Agatston, co-author of "Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age" and a counselor at Cobb County School District's Prevention-Intervention Center in Georgia.
"A lot of it can be prevented if we can just teach kids to think before they put things out there," Agatston said.
John Halligan, whose son Ryan took his life in Essex Junction, Vt., after many years of bullying, some online, applauded the national movement to enact cyber-bullying laws. But, he said, laws alone cannot stop the problem.
"I don't think a law would have prevented what happened here, quite frankly," said Halligan, who spends his time telling his son's story to schools.
"Even though what happened to Ryan happened online as well, it really started in school. I think that's the first step that a lot of states are missing."