Kylie Kenney heard a crescendo of whispers and jeers as she moved through an otherwise unremarkable eighth-grade school day. The reason: Word had spread of a Web site posted by some of her peers, titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated."
The site featured a list of crude insults, beneath the heading: "She's queer because. ..." It seemed everyone in school had read it. Distressed, she reported the site to the school but says that the impact of the bullying was so severe that she eventually changed schools. "I still have emotional damage," says Kylie, now a 10th-grader.
Kylie's story underscores a growing problem for school administrators and local officials: how to handle so-called cyberbullying. As long as there have been kids, there have been bullies. Now, emboldened by the anonymity available online, a bully can be nastier -- and with the click of a mouse, have a far broader audience -- than in the past. What may once have been snickers in the hallway can now be an excruciatingly public humiliation spread via email, text messaging and online teen forums.
Schools and local officials have been hearing increasing calls from parents to step in. But educators are torn between the desire to stop bad behavior and the limits on their ability to intervene. Much of the badmouthing takes place on home computers and off school grounds, where schools have little or no authority. An official at Kylie's former school, Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vt., declined to discuss specifics of her case, though an attorney says, "The school acted appropriately in all respects."
Now, school officials, states and even Web sites are taking action. Educators and state legislatures in Florida, South Carolina, Utah, Oregon and elsewhere are creating new policies that deal with cyberbullying, either incorporating electronic harassment into existing bullying policies, or spelling it out as an entirely new threat. In doing so, they are often crafting language that allows educators to intervene even in off-campus incidents if the activity affects the school environment.
MySpace.com, the popular networking site, last fall released a guide for school administrators, advising them to contact the site about false or offensive user profiles or to report threats or cyberbullying. It also created a hotline and email address for the exclusive use of school officials to contact MySpace.
The challenge is that students, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights that school officials can't cross. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that to suppress student speech on campus, a public school must show it aims to prevent "substantial disruption" in the classroom rather than "a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."
Later this year, the justices will consider whether public school officials can suppress student speech off campus, in a case where a Juneau, Alaska, high-school principal suspended a student for unfurling a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" on a sidewalk where students had gathered. The case could have implications for other forms of off-campus speech, such as online postings.
Some schools aren't waiting. In Florida, the Pasco County school board added language about cyberbullying to its code of conduct for the current school year. Its language states that "the school board has no duty to regulate or review off-campus Internet messages, statements postings, or acts" but adds that when those acts "threaten violence against another student or otherwise disrupts the learning environment or orderly conduct of the school," the school can take action, from conferencing in parents and students, to expulsion.
Linda Crosthwait, assistant principal at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kan., has her own rule of thumb for mean-spirited rumors online: "If it's carried into the classroom in some way -- a fight in school or something said in school -- then (the posting) becomes a piece of what we can deal with," she says.
These positions reflect the growing view of many school officials that electronic harassment that happens off campus can affect a student's education -- and therefore be a punishable offense. In Oregon last year, the state association of school boards consulted with the state Justice Department to draft policy language specific to cyberbullying. While state law already requires school districts to have a bullying policy in place, local districts wanted additional clarification.
The guidance provided from the state association says that "any form of harassment using electronic devices ... is prohibited and will not be tolerated in the district." It leaves open the possibility that the school's reach could extend off campus.
"There's always the legal discussion of 'if it doesn't happen at school, can a district take action?'" says Joe Wehrli, policy-services director for the Oregon School Boards Association. "If a student is harassed for three hours at night on the Web and they come to school and have to sit in the same classroom with the student that's the bully, there is an effect on education, and in that way, there is a direct link to schools," he argues.
The decisions aren't easy. The National School Boards Association hosted an online discussion two months ago titled "Postings, Protection and Policies: What School Leaders Need to Know About Teen Hangouts" -- specifically online forums. Lawyer Kimberly Jessie Cunningham advised school leaders to warn parents that "the district is limited in its ability to discipline" bad behavior online. She characterized "substantial disruption" under the law as including such things as shutting down the school computer system for multiple days because too many students attempted to access bullying comments online.
"School administrators need to understand that their authority stops at the schoolhouse door," says Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Jill Eckel, principal at Sussex County Charter School for Technology, a middle school in Sparta, N.J., recently got wind of a student's MySpace page laced with discussion of an upcoming fight involving students at her school. But the brawl was to take place away from campus.
"I sat for a long time, thinking, 'Is it my responsibility to call the parents?'" Ms. Eckel recalls. "I've had parents tell me it's not my business" to patrol online activity. In the end, she says, she alerted a parent she trusted, who in turn got in touch with the parents involved.
At Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, N.J., principal Msgr. Kieran McHugh aims to keep it simple. He outright banned the use of MySpace last school year after hearing about students posting content he considered inappropriate. Now, "we monitor it," says Father McHugh, who has contacted parents when students have been found posting on the site. That, he says, has eliminated any further instances. As a private organization, a Catholic school has more leeway over student conduct than does a public school, since it isn't bound by the same First Amendment rules that limit government suppression of speech. (By the same token, a private religious school can mandate prayer or religious lessons, which public schools may not.)
Several states passed laws or other measures in 2006 that addressed bullying that can happen in cyberspace. Idaho's law that seeks to prohibit student bullying and harassment allows that such acts can be "committed through the use of a land line, car phone or wireless telephone or through the use of data or computer software that is accessed through a computer, computer system or computer network."
South Carolina's Safe School Climate Act to prevent school bullying includes "electronic communication" in its definition of harassment.
In a new rule that went into effect earlier this month, Utah's State Board of Education amended its existing discipline guidelines for districts to include policies specific to bullying. The changes also included a definition of cyberbullying, requiring districts to offer students and teachers training that would broadly address "electronic means for aggression inside or outside of school."
Plan of Action
Here are some excerpts from MySpace.com's guide for school administrators on cyberbullying:
If a student is a victim of cyberbullying on MySpace, please instruct him or her to do the following:
1. Click "Contact MySpace", located on the bottom of any MySpace.com web page
2. Select "Reporting Abuse" from the first dropdown menu
3. Select "Report Cyberbullying" in the second dropdown menu
4. Follow any and all subsequent directions.
Since students often approach schools for help in such matters, educators may report cyberbullying to MySpace. The following information will be helpful:
1. TheMySpace.com Web address of the subject of the cyberbullying
2. TheMySpace.com Web address of the alleged cyberbully
3. Copies of messages and/or other forms of communication sent by the cyberbully to the subject
4. Your relationship to both students
5. Your name and title, and name, address and telephone number of the school where you are employed and the student(s) attend(s).
If there is an emergency situation involving cyberbullying in which you feel a student is in danger, please contact your local law enforcement agency immediately.