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In Lakeland, Florida in September, a twelve-year-old girl killed herself by jumping from the top of a cement silo.  It has been reported that she had been the subject of a bullying campaign from a squadron of classmates for over a year.  Two of them, fourteen and twelve respectively, are now in custody and face felony stalking charges.

In April, a Canadian teenager was taken off life support several days after being found hanging in the bathroom by her mother.  Video images of an alleged sexual assault against her had been distributed online.  Two 18-year-old men have now been arrested and charged with the making of and distribution of child pornography.

In a similar incident this year, the town of Steubenville, Ohio was riven by a scandal involving an intoxicated adolescent girl, some football players, a night of parties, and lots of phones.

In maybe the first widely reported such incident, a Rutgers student committed suicide after being outed online by a dorm-mate who’d made surreptitious video recordings.

It is a truism that children are the cruelest of all, but in an age of amplification, when even the most isolated members of the most isolated communities can find their private lives smeared across the nation’s windshield, the menace posed by schoolyard bullying has never been greater.

Emily Layden, a Maine English teacher, wrote an excellent post last year for a parenting blog hosted by the New York Times about the hypermodern variety of bullying her brother was subjected to.  A sixth-grade classmate had suggested on Facebook that people “like if you hate” her little brother.  The post had garnered 57 likes by the time he got to school.  “…my half of the generation,” she wrote, “in not communicating the difference between work and the Web, between the Internet and reality, has allowed the younger set to seek personal validation in Internet numbers.”

Worse, she wrote, is the fact that those who trade professionally in the manufacture of Internet fame have shown young people that the secret to success is the cheap shot.  “We have shown them that the easiest way to [achieve validation] is through varying degrees of cruelty.”

“Schools have to play an active, aggressive role in the digital lives of teenagers to help bring the digital underworld to the surface,” writes Matt Levinson, the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey (2010, ISTE), in a recent NYT letter to the editor.  “If kids and parents know that the school is fully present in the form of well-developed social and emotional learning programs, informative parent education sessions and safe spaces for kids to approach trusted adults when problems arise, then our digital kids have a fighting chance to navigate the uncertain, at times treacherous and often relentless waters of digital media.”

This month’s lead article in Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, Cyberbullying: Legal Developments and Trends in Student Use of Social Media, by Jennifer Childress, an attorney with Austin’s Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Treviño, plunges head-first into the issue.

“There is a growing debate over whether school districts should take steps to monitor student use of social media,” she writes, highlighting on the one side private contractors that promise just that versus, on the other, the students’ First Amendment rights, and the issue of school jurisdiction.

I had the pleasure of communicating with Ms. Childress about proactive approaches administrators might take to prevent cyberbullying. “Districts must keep lines of communication open with students,” she said.  “Give students easy ways to report problems and then have a plan in place to act upon those reports.  Some school districts have phone and texting hotlines, complaint boxes, and online reporting mechanisms.  Creating a school climate where students feel like they can raise concerns will allow the school to address issues promptly when they arise.

“Training for students and staff is also critical,” she continued, noting that studies have revealed a proportional relationship between lessons in social media and reductions in cyberbullying.

Jim Walsh, the senior partner of Childress’s firm, said, “We have to get the kids enrolled” in being part of the solution, mentioning programs in several Texas schools designed to reach bullies, their targets, and the witnesses of bullying events.

“As for student discipline,” says Childress, “cyberbullying presents a unique challenge when it comes to student discipline because it usually originates off campus.  Unless it involves true threats of harm to particular students or staff, schools can only discipline when cyberbullying creates a material and substantial disruption to school operations.  A school would have to be able to document various ways that the cyberbullying incident impacted the school, such as any disruption of classes, time and effort spent investigating the matter, computer records showing any on-campus computer use related to the event, law enforcement involvement, and parent inquiries, among other things.  Without a material and substantial disruption to campus operations, the student accused of bullying can assert First Amendment rights when faced with student discipline.  In those circumstances,” Childress concluded, “districts can get creative and use non-disciplinary methods to address the matter, such as counseling, meetings with parents and students, student mediation, or extra social skills training.”

Read much more about this of-the-moment dilemma in the November/December issue of Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest.

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