Schools try to control cyberbullying

Schools — especially middle schools — are trying to figure out how to respond to cyberbullying, reports the New York Times. Educators are reluctant to assert authority over what students do on their own time. Some parents wants schools to intervene; others say it’s none of the school’s business.

. . . one 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, an organization founded by two criminologists who defined bullying as “willful and repeated harm” inflicted through phones and computers, said one in five middle-school students had been affected.

The law is unsettled. So far, “rulings have been contradictory,” the Times reports.

The principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey asked parents to ban social networking for their children. Meredith Wearley, the school’s seventh-grade guidance counselor, spends much of her time dealing with “cyberdrama.”

“In seventh grade, the girls are trying to figure out where they fit in,” Mrs. Wearley said. “They have found friends but they keep regrouping. And the technology makes it harder for them to understand what’s a real friendship.”

Because students prefer to use their phones for texting rather than talking, Mrs. Wearley added, they often miss cues about tone of voice. Misunderstandings proliferate: a crass joke can read as a withering attack; did that text have a buried subtext?

The girls come into her office, depressed, weeping, astonished, betrayed.

. . . They show Mrs. Wearley reams of texts, the nastiness accelerating precipitously.

“It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” an eighth-grade girl tells the Times. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

Online harassment can begin in fourth grade. By high school, cyberbullies are craftier but their victims tend to be more resilient.

A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. But when the Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., disciplined Evan S. Cohen’s eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying, he took on the school district.

After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen’s daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.”

J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.

Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, won a $107,150 in costs and legal fees  from the district after a federal judge ruled the video hadn’t caused the school “substantial” disruption.

Judge Wilson also threw in an aside that summarizes the conundrum that is adolescent development, acceptable civility and school authority.

The good intentions of the school notwithstanding, he wrote, it cannot discipline a student for speech, “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.”

The lawyer father said he told his daughter the video “wasn’t a nice thing to do,” but kept it on  YouTube “as a public service” so viewers can see “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.”

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