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Cyberbullying law would let schools deal with students

21 May

Friday May 20, 2011

BRATTLEBORO — Schools will have broader authority to crack down on cyberbullying with a new electronic harassment law the Legislature passed this year.

The cyberbullying provision was packed into a 41-section miscellaneous education bill that lawmakers passed in the final days of the session.

If Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the bill, which he is expected to do in the coming weeks, principals and administrators will be able to discipline students who use online methods to harass or bully another student.

The law identifies cyberbullying in statute for the first time, and it also allows school administrators to suspend or expel a student for an action that does not occur during the school day or on school property.

“Up until now schools could only really discipline students for behavior that happened on school property,” said Vermont Department of Education attorney Mark Oettinger. “This broadens the school’s options and responsibilities.”

Oettinger said that under the new law, if one student sends a threatening e-mail which prevents a second student from attending class, the first student could be disciplined.

He also said an unintended consequence of the new law broadens the school’s authority to expel of suspend a student for actions taken “not on school property.”

Though the law is new, and has not been tested yet, Oettinger said it appears as though a principal could discipline a student who

harasses or bullies another student while not on school grounds.

“It seems to me that if a threat is made and it has an adverse effect on another student, it would fall within the purview of the law for a principal to take an action,” said Oettinger. “Previously, if a threat was made at home the school could not do anything. It seems as though the wording is broad enough to extend the disciplinary authority to other premises.”

Robert Appel, Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, admits that the new law might cause some “tension” in the blurry lines that cross between parenting, law enforcement and education.

But he points out that the law is not mandatory, and it only gives school administrators another tool when dealing with the ever widening problem of cyberbullying.

Appel said the Legislature will likely work on the issue more in the next session to clarify the role educators are expected to play when events happen off of school property.

“This bill is a good start. The Legislature wanted to do something,” Appel said. “These threats do happen and they do block a student’s right to access their education, which is a Constitutional right. I’m sure the debate will continue.”

“We do have concerns that this bill could increase the liability a school has in preventing cyberbullying,” said Vermont School Board Association Executive Director Stephen Dale.

Dale said the intent of the law was good and he said it was necessary for the Legislature to do something to give school administrators a tool to combat online harassment and bullying.

“It is a good thing to acknowledge that there can be behaviors that affect kids which take place outside the school building,” said Dale. “And these comments can be generated in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago.”

But Dale said the law is vague, and if a school does, or does not, act on a report of cyberbullying, an expensive law suit could follow.

“We would like to see the language a little more clear,” he said. “We think its a good law, and it is good for schools to have these tools to deal with this issue, but we are opposed to legislation that increases the liability of schools if the behavior does not stop.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new law puts schools squarely into the position of dealing with issues that are probably more appropriately addressed by parents.

Gilbert said the ACLU has argued strongly for the right of every child to access his or her education, but the new law might drag schools into a less clear debate over their role in activities outside of the school walls.

“Increasingly, schools have become regulators of last resort,” said Gilbert. “This places a heavy burden on school administrators as they are forced to navigate difficult, sensitive areas, areas where legal expertise is needed and the exercise of administrators’ extended authority is challenging.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311ext. 279 or at hwtisman@reformer.com.