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While schools must be careful to respect students' First Amendment rights to free speech, they still have some leverage for addressing cyber bullying, especially if the attacks occur on campus, experts say.
Even in situations involving off-site use of electronic devices, schools may have some authority over student cyber bullying activity if it disrupts or has the potential to disrupt the educational environment, they say.
While nearly every U.S. state has enacted legislation requiring schools to establish bullying prevention and intervention programs, nearly 40 states have amended those statutes to also include cyber bullying, according to the Jupiter, Fla.-based Cyber Bullying Research Center.
Cyber bullying is defined as the use of computers, cell phones or other electronic devices by students to embarrass, harass or threaten another person.
There are several proactive steps that school administrators can take to prevent cyber bullying, according to Patti Agatston, a licensed professional counselor with the Prevention Intervention Center, a student assistance program that serves more than 100 schools in the Cobb County School District near Atlanta, and co-author of “Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age.”
Among them are:
? Develop clear rules and policies to prohibit the use of school technologies to bully others.
? Educate students and staff members about what types of behavior constitute cyber bullying and how the school district's policies apply to them.
? Provide adequate supervision and monitoring of student use of technology.
? Establish systems for reporting cyber bullying or misuse of technology.
? Establish effective responses to reports of cyber bullying.
“I would investigate what exposures I might be inviting by leaving computer labs open for nonstructured activity,” said Bob Jackson, senior vp and information security officer at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. in Memphis, Tenn. “For instance, do we permit computer labs or publicly available areas to be available for checking Facebook status? Maybe that use exposes you to more liability than you feel comfortable with.”
Ellen Kelty, a psychologist with Denver Public Schools, also recommends that schools implement programs that promote a positive culture so students feel comfortable about reporting incidents of cyber bullying confidentially without fear of reprisal or being ignored.
“A lot of it is teaching kids that they need to tell an adult. It's similar to suicide prevention. You have to break the code of silence,” she said, adding that “there should always be investigation and intervention at the school level.”
“Don't assume that this is a normal part of child development. It's not OK, and we need to do something about it,” Ms. Kelty said.
A New Jersey teenager is suing her high school for $1 million for failing to halt a “cyber bullying” campaign that she claims was carried out by fellow students and a parent over a three-year period.