Local educators weigh in on cyberbullying law
The law — scheduled to take effect July 1, 2013 — recognizes that “cyberbullying that takes place off school grounds still has a negative effect on the school environment” and falls within the authority of the school to address. The focus had previously been within the school environment.
It also clarifies and creates policies and guidelines for promoting a bully-free environment under the 2010 Dignity for All Students Act, which goes into effect July 1 to address the overall issue of bullying.
The law defines bullying and harassment as including the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or physical and verbal threats, intimidations or abuse that unreasonably and substantially interferes with a students educational opportunities, performance and well being. Cyberbullying is when these actions occur through any form of electronic communication.
Oneonta High School Principal Nancy Osborn said that while she was waiting to see the details, the legislation should make the job of her administrators easier. Often people feel that messages sent from computers off school grounds shouldn’t be treated the same as threats in school.
“Anything that impacts what the student is doing in school needs to be addressed,” she said. Electronic methods, such as text or Facebook messages, that might make a student feel physically or emotionally threatened are already taken seriously by her staff.
“We are waiting for details, but it shouldn’t change how we handle such behavior” thanks to the work of the school district safety committee headed by Associate Principal Thomas Brindley, Osborn said.
“If some action affects the student’s day, we address it,” she said. Students are encouraged to report any such incidents. This results on average in five to 10 cases of bullying a year, with some overlapping of cyberbullying, she said. Sometimes it is resolved by educating students about what is acceptable and others times results in punishments including suspensions based on the code of conduct.
Meghann Andrews-Whitaker is executive director for Oneonta Family Resource Network. The agency works with families of children with disabilities. Such children are often targets of bullying of all kinds, she said. The law is “a step in the right direction” because it could promote a “systemic change” in society.
“We don’t have a lot of guidance on how to carry out the law,” Sidney Central School Superintendent Bill Christensen said. “It appears it will broaden the responsibility of the school to police outside the school. We don’t have the ability to police everything,” but the problem is something that needs to be addressed. He was looking for state guidance on the issue.
The school handles about 20 cyberbullying cases a year, he said, but the number is growing as students have more access to things like text messaging and Facebook.
The key to addressing all bullying is to do more prevention work, Christensen said, which the school already does through several avenues, including character education. There is also more of an emphasis on reporting by students.
The new law will require more resources dedicated to the effort and is another example of an unfunded state mandate, he said. There are 20 to 30 cases a year of bullying at the school, he said, with most involving relatively minor incidents.
“All are taken seriously in an effort to make school a place where people will be comfortable,” he said.
The state Education Department is still developing the regulations, Jefferson Central School Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said. He hasn’t had a chance to review the new law, because it came as a surprise near the end of school. “We’re waiting to hear more about it,” before the school changes the way it handles such incidents.
In the several dozen bullying cases the school handles with each year, a few have been cyberbullying, he said.
“We’ve dealt with such behavior before because it very often spills over into the school day,” Mummenthey said. In dealing with bullying, “we encourage students to seek out adult assistance.” Other methods of dealing with the overall problem include educating children about the issues from an early grade, he said. Students cover the issues in Internet safety lesson.
The school deals with several dozen bullying cases each year, Mummenthey said. Most are resolved quickly through measures such as conferences with students and parents. There are a small number of chronic cases that require harsher discipline, such as detention or suspension.
“We work hard to send a clear message that bullying of any type is unacceptable,” he said.