California put a new law giving schools the authority to suspend or expel students for cyber-bullying into effect this month.
Cyber-bullying can mean anything from sexual harassment to hate violence by means of the Internet, cell phones or any number of electronic devices.
In 1999, California was among the first to introduce a cyber-stalking law, but many began to feel that as other states have put similar laws into effect, more needed to be done to fill the gaps left by this early attempt.
“The problem is when kids are stalking each other in schools, schools didn‘t have authority,“ said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an organization providing Internet safety education. “The cyber-stalking law in California just didn‘t reach there.“
A study by the National Crime Prevention Council found that nearly 35 percent of all adolescents surveyed were victims of cyber-bullying at some point. There were virtually no demographic differences among those who commit acts of cyber-bullying.
Aftab said the new law is an improvement because it covers acts outside of those that put the victim in great bodily danger.
She said this puts schools in a better position to deal with the cyber-bullying problem, and could allow law enforcement the authority necessary to properly investigate these acts.
Some experts, however, are not convinced creating more laws is the best answer.
“We need to get to the heart of the solution,“ said Shaheen Shariff, author of Confronting Cyber-Bullying: What Schools Need to Know to Control Misconduct and Avoid Legal Consequences.
“It really depends on what kind of cyber-bullying is involved,“ Shariff said.
In cases where the act is of an extreme nature, where there is a serious and criminal act, punishment is the right way, she said. But in lesser cases the schools can come down too harshly.
Many of these lesser offenses, she said, may be signs of larger systemic problems in the school system, and punishing them without prejudice can be a “Band-Aid solution.“
Instead, Shariff advocates treating the root-causes of these problems, such as generally anti-authoritarian attitudes in schools.
Shariff said teachers can often see technology as a hassle that needs to be adjusted to. This can often be an obstacle in overcoming cyber-bullying, because the best way to teach safe Internet practices is for students and teachers to engage technology together.
The new law is mainly targeted at K-12 schools, and it is unclear as of yet whether or not public universities will use the law to develop their own policies.
UC Davis does not have a specific policy relating to cyber-bullying, said associate director of Student Judicial Affairs Donald Dudley.
Dudley stressed that if such a policy were to be developed, the school would need to carefully consider every objection.
“There‘s a balancing act between what expression is protected by the first amendment and what communication might be a direct threat to a person‘s health and safety.“
JON GJERDE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.