Big bully

A California principal used an anti-bullying assembly to accuse — wrongly — a freshman boy of cyberbullying. Arroyo High School Principal Larry Smith pointed out the boy as he sat with 400 classmates.

“The student was saying he didn’t do it, but then the principal kept saying he did,” said freshman Kenneth Lee. “The principal said he posted an inappropriate picture about someone, but he deleted the picture knowing he did something wrong.”

Smith later admitted the boy “didn’t do anything wrong.” He re-assembled the freshman class to apologize.

Via Reason’s Hit & Run blog.

Stopping cyberbullies

Predatory adults are rare on social media, compared to mean girls and crude boys, writes Emily Bazelon in How to Stop the Bullies in The Atlantic.

Facebook gets millions of complaints a week about cyberbullying, she finds. Employees are expected to decide in a few seconds which have merit.

Henry Lieberman, an MIT computer scientist, is working on a program to spot nasty posts immediately. In middle school, he  was a “fat kid with the nickname Hank the Tank,” he tells Bazelon.

. . . he and his graduate students built a “commonsense knowledge base” called BullySpace—essentially a repository of words and phrases that could be paired with an algorithm to comb through text and spot bullying situations. Yes, BullySpace can be used to recognize words like fat and slut (and all their text-speak misspellings), but also to determine when the use of common words varies from the norm in a way that suggests they’re meant to wound.

In tests, BullySpace caught 80 percent of the insults flagged by human testers.

Lieberman also hopes to use “ladders of reflection” to persuade kids not to harass others.

Think about the kid who posted “Because he’s a fag! ROTFL [rolling on the floor laughing]!!!” What if, when he pushed the button to submit, a box popped up saying “Waiting 60 seconds to post,” next to another box that read “I don’t want to post” and offered a big X to click on? Or what if the message read “That sounds harsh! Are you sure you want to send that?” Or what if it simply reminded the poster that his comment was about to go to thousands of people?

“Ash” and “Katherine,” members of the hacker group, Anonymous, publicized the identities and vicious tweets of four high school boys who were harassing a 12-year-old girl with rape threats and suggestions she commit suicide. She’d followed one of the boys on Twitter, then angered him by un-following him.

At first the boys railed against Ash on Twitter, and one played down his involvement, denying that he had ever threatened to rape the girl. But after a while, two of the boys began sending remorseful messages. “For two solid days, every time we logged on, we had another apology from them,” Ash said. . . . Katherine thought the boys hadn’t understood what impact their tweets would have on the girl receiving them—they hadn’t thought of her as a real person. “They were actually shocked,” she said. . . . we started talking to them about anti-bullying initiatives they could bring to their schools.”

“When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible,” one of the boys e-mailed Bazelon. Perhaps a few seconds of reflection would have helped.

Anti-bullying laws can conflict with free-speech rights, argues Eugene Volokh, a law professor. A proposed Minnesota law bans “interfering” with an individual’s ability “to participate in a safe and supportive learning environment.”

Say that students are talking over lunch about how a classmate committed a crime, cheated, said racist things, treated his girlfriend cruelly, or whatever else, which causes people to feel hostile towards the classmate. That interferes with his ability “to participate in a … supportive learning environment.”

Bullying may include speech or conduct that “relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age” of the individual or his/her associates.

Anti-bully tweets praise of classmates

An Iowa City teenager and his friends are cyber-praising classmates in protest of cyberbullying, writes USA Today.

Jeremiah Anthony created a Twitter feed to compliment his fellow West High School classmates after reading about bullies who use social media to harass other students. Anthony and two friends send kind words to classmates and teachers under the Twitter handle @WestHighBros.

Study: Cyberbullying isn’t common

Cyberbullying is not very common, ”has not increased over time and has not created many ‘new’ victims and bullies,” according to research at U.S. and Norwegian schools, reports Ed Week.

The study, by longtime bullying researcher Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen, Norway, found that while, on average, 18 percent of American students said they had been verbally bullied; those who said they had been cyberbullied was about 4.5 percent. About 11 percent of Norwegian students said they had been verbally bullied, compared to about 3.4 percent who said they had been bullied in some electronic format. The study was published online in May in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology.

To discern the frequency, students were asked specific questions and reminded that it’s not bullying when they are teased in a playful or friendly way. Electronic bullying, as defined by the survey, included bullying via email, instant messaging, in a chat room, on a website—presumably including social networks—or through a text message.

Olweus found “no systematic increase in cyberbullying,” even though more young people have cell phones and use social media sites.

The Ravi rethink

An 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, Dharun Ravi bragged on Twitter about using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate and his male date, inviting friends to watch a second date. In a New Yorker story, Ravi comes across as immature, attention-seeking jerk, but not a homophobe. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, joked with a friend about a ”five sec peep,” unplugged Ravi’s computer to prevent spying and asked to switch rooms. Then he committed suicide.

Ravi now faces 10 years in prison and deportation to his native India. A New Jersey jury convicted him of invasion of privacy and “bias intimidation,” a hate crime. That’s prompted a mass rethink. Ten years?

Make the Punishment Fit the Cyber-Crime writes Emily Bazelon in a New York Times op-ed.

According to New Jersey’s civil rights law, you are subject to a much higher penalty if the jury finds that you committed one of a broad range of underlying offenses for the purpose of targeting someone because of his race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The idea of shielding vulnerable groups is well intentioned. But with the nation on high alert over bullying — especially when it intersects with computer technology and the Internet — these civil rights statutes are being stretched to go after teenagers who acted meanly, but not violently. This isn’t what civil rights laws should be for.

It was a “hateless hate crime,” writes Jacob Sullum in Reason. “Before the trial the prosecutors offered him a deal that involved no jail time and a chance to avoid deportation, which suggests even they do not believe he should be punished as severely as a violent felon.”

I doubt the verdict will stand, if only because the defense wasn’t allowed to see Clementi’s suicide notes, which were judged “irrelevant.”  Ravi wasn’t charged with causing the suicide, but it was very relevant to the decision to charge him with a hate crime, not just invasion of privacy.

Teens need to know that cyberbullying is a crime, counters Gregg Weinlein, a retired teacher, in an Ed Week commentary.

Too often, teens flip off the word “bully” as childish, knowing that assailants today are much more vicious than the playground bullies of the previous century. Teenagers today must fend off the silent assassins of the digital age, who operate with phones and tablets and plant emotional land mines in social-networking sites. The harassment and text assaults perpetrated by some teenagers should have a criminal connotation if we are to see a shift in how older students perceive and understand this abusive behavior.

In this case, “criminal connotation” means prison and deportation.

Cyberbullying or free speech?

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear three cases involving students suspended for malicious online comments.

School boards and principals had hoped for guidance on the clash between free speech and civility, reports the LA Times.

A middle school principal in northeastern Pennsylvania was shocked to see his photo online along with a description of him as a “hairy sex addict” and a “pervert” who liked “hitting on students” in his office.

A high school principal north of Pittsburgh saw a MySpace profile of himself that called him a “big fag,” a “whore” and a drug user.

And in West Virginia, a school principal found out that a girl had created an online site to maliciously mock another girl as a “slut” with herpes.

All three students were suspended and filed suit, claiming their free speech rights had been abridged. The two students who charged their principals with misconduct won in the lower courts. The girl who mocked a classmate lost.

Asian-Americans face more school bullying

Asian-American students endure more bullying than others, a new study finds. Fifty-four percent of Asian-American teenagers said they were bullied in the classroom, compared to 38.4 percent of blacks, 34.3 percent of Hispanics and 31.3 percent of whites.

The disparity was even more striking for cyber-bullying.

Some 62 percent of Asian Americans reported online harassment once or twice a month, compared with 18.1 percent of whites.

The data comes from a 2009 survey by the U.S. Justice Department and Education Department which interviewed 6,500 students from ages 12 to 18.

Anti-bullying law stresses NJ schools

A new anti-bullying law requires New Jersey schools to police campuses and online communications to protect students, reports the New York Times. But superintendents and school boards complain they’re being asked to do more with the same resources.

Under a new state law in New Jersey, lunch-line bullies in the East Hanover schools can be reported to the police by their classmates this fall through anonymous tips to the Crimestoppers hot line.

In Elizabeth, children, including kindergartners, will spend six class periods learning, among other things, the difference between telling and tattling.

And at North Hunterdon High School, students will be told that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying: if they see it, they have a responsibility to try to stop it.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights “demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes,” reports the Times.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

School officials also worry about lawsuits.

Most bullying complaints involve Internet comments that lead to campus confrontations, says Richard Bergacs, an assistant principal at North Hunterdon High. “It’s gossip, innuendo, rumors — and people getting mad about it.”

This summer, thousands of school employees attended training sessions on the new law; more than 200 districts have snapped up a $1,295 package put together by a consulting firm that includes a 100-page manual and a DVD.

Westfield Superintendent Margaret Dolan worries that students and their parents “will find it easier to label minor squabbles bullying than to find ways to work out their differences.”

The law was motivated by the suicide of a Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, whose gay sexual encounter was secretly filmed and aired online by his college roommate.

 

 

 

Schools liable for cyberbullying

Under civil rights law, school officials must act to curb harassment of students off campus and after school, including cyberbullying, declares a “Dear Colleague” from the Education Department. From the Daily Caller:

“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet… it does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents [but] creates a hostile environment … [which can] limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” according to the far-reaching letter, which was completed Oct. 26 by Russlynn Ali, who heads the agency’s civil rights office.

School officials will face lawsuits even when they are ignorant about students’ statements, if a court later decides they “reasonably should have known” about their students’ conduct, said the statement.

. . .  “The school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the perpetrators, but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families, and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond… [and] provide additional services to the student who was harassed in order to address the effects of the harassment,” said the letter.

Facebook is adding a feature that will let users “report content to someone in their support system (like a parent or teacher),” Facebook announced March 11 after the White House conference on school bullying. Presumably some children will report perceived harassment to a teacher or principal, making the school responsible for doing something about it.

The National School Board Association objects to expanding schools’ ‘legal risks,” reports Reason.

The remedies being pushed by administration officials will also violate students’ and families’ privacy rights, disregard student’s constitutional free-speech rights, spur expensive lawsuits against cash-strapped schools, and constrict school official’ ability to flexibly use their own anti-bullying policies to manage routine and unique issues, said the NSBA letter.

School officials have a responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment when they’re in school. Making that a 24/7 obligation . . . It’s too much to ask.

Update: Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, plans to introduce legislation requiring schools that receive federal aid to report bullying to the federal government and specify whether disabled students were involved.

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.”