Waynesboro school policy to address cyberbullying

December 07, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, PA. - Waynesboro Area School District is facing a question common in schools across the country.

How can educators protect students' First Amendment right to free speech while also dealing with bullying remarks made through text messages, instant messaging and social-networking sites?

Waynesboro's school staff and local police encountered so-called cyberbullying at least twice in 2007 when students posted threatening messages on A threat that September referred to a group of students at Waynesboro Area Senior High School, while one in May was a weapons threat against three students.

"We have to adapt because of the way kids relate to each other nowadays," Superintendent James Robertson said, explaining that the vast majority of students regularly use cell phones and computers.


On Tuesday, the school board is expected to adopt a policy addressing cyberbullying. Board members, administrators and a lawyer have talked for months about the policy's components, specifically whether the school district has authority over things written with off-campus computers.

"There are situations in which cyberbullying can be enforced, even if it's not speech on campus," said James Flower Jr., the school board's legal counsel.

Case law indicates enforcement is acceptable in situations that affect school safety or the learning environment, he said.

Sameer Hinduja, who co-wrote a book on cyberbullying, agreed that courts have given school officials the ability to investigate electronic bullying, regardless of where it originates.

"Schools can definitely intervene, either informally or formally, if cyberbullying originates off campus," he said.

Hinduja and his co-author, Justin W. Patchin, have fielded many questions about cyberbullying in the wake of the Megan Meier case, which resulted in the conviction of a Missouri mother the day before Thanksgiving. Lori Drew was found guilty of accessing a computer without authorization, something that prosecutors argued led to 13-year-old Megan's suicide when she received a belittling MySpace message from Drew, who was posing as a teen boy.

"We know of at least five cases in the United States where kids have taken their own life in part because of cyberbullying," said Hinduja, who holds a doctorate in criminal justice and teaches at Florida Atlantic University.

The National Crime Prevention Council surveyed 800 people ages 8 to 18 in 2006. Results showed that 40 percent were cyberbullied, which tends to be at its worst among 14- and 15-year-olds.

"We learned that girls report experiencing cyberbullying more than boys," said Joselle Shea, the council's director of children and youth initiatives.

It remains less socially acceptable for girls to physically fight or verbally attack each other, so they are using the Internet and cell phones for those aggressions, according to Hinduja.

"We're finding it's a problem across all socioeconomic groups," he said.

The National Crime Prevention Council urges youths to save copies of bullying messages and not forward them. They're also encouraged to report incidents to adults, school officials or police if the threat warrants law enforcement investigation.

"In schools, we teach them to be good citizens in the community," Shea said. "We need to teach them to be good citizens in their cyber community."

Hinduja said that parents should be concerned if a child seems nervous upon receiving an instant or text message, doesn't want to talk about his or her computer activity, or suddenly stops using the computer. Also, children bullied in the real world will sometimes retaliate and become cyberbullies, he said.

Robertson, who until recently worked as a principal in the Camp Hill (Pa.) School District, said he has seen fights break out in schools due to things said or done outside school. He said Waynesboro's potential new policy defines aspects of bullying and gives administrators more authority. That policy also will address how all bullying is reported.

"It recognizes that bullying can occur in traditional ways, but it's also happening in different ways," he said.

That comes, in large part, from the way young people incorporate technology into their everyday lives, according to Hinduja, who has resources for parents at

"It is their life. It's all they know," he said. "They've grown up with it."

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