Schools grapple with cyber attacks, student rights

03/05/2014 10:30 AM

03/05/2014 10:31 AM

Social media platforms clearly have benefited countless people, but they also have negatively affected many by creating new means of bullying.

“Cyberbullying” is the term that has been coined to describe online bullying, and lawmakers around the country continue to try to combat the abuse without infringing on student rights.

Balancing student rights with a stable and good school environment is not a new issue. The Supreme Court has had to intervene in many cases to guarantee student rights.

For example, in 1969, the case Tinker v. Des Moines was brought to the Supreme Court by three teenagers and their parents, who believed that their school district violated the Constitution when it suspended the teenagers for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The school claimed that the armbands disrupted the teaching of other students, but the Supreme Court disagreed and ruled in favor of the teenagers, saying “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Modern advances, however, have caused more debate about student rights. With the rise of online bullying, some believe that schools should suspend students for bullying others. “I believe that schools should be able to suspend students who taunt others online,” said Nikko Womack, a sophomore at Central Valley High School in Ceres. “Without the threat of suspension or some sort of punishment at school, there is nothing to stop students from bullying others online.”

That opinion, however, is not shared by everybody. “Punishing for cyberbullying is an issue that parents should deal with, and not school administration,” said Douglas Davis, 22, a Ceres High graduate and student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. “While I condemn cyberbullying, parents should be the only ones who are able to punish kids for (noncriminal) stuff they do outside of school.”

The California Legislature has attacked the problem piecemeal as loopholes have been discovered in the state’s original 2006 cyberbullying laws. Still, school administrators are limited by jurisdiction.

AB 256, Chapter 700 of the California Education Code, approved by the governor in October, allows school administrators to suspend or expel students for all types of bullying, but they are limited to “while on school grounds, while going to or coming from school, during the lunch period whether on or off the campus, during, or while going to or coming from, a school-sponsored activity.” This creates a legal challenge because it raises questions on whether school administrators can suspend students for cyberbullying, which usually happens off campus and on private phones or computers.

Many schools have started to confront cyberbullying despite the legality questions. While Central Valley High School administrators still see discipline, including suspension, as an option, they prefer prevention methods, such as putting anti-bullying posters in classrooms and creating videos about the effects of bullying.

“I have a duty to protect students and I have a duty to make students comfortable while on campus and to make the campus inviting,” said Alfonso Navarro, an assistant principal at Central Valley.

“Current laws and policies on bullying, like Seth’s Law, force school districts to update their existing policies and laws on bullying for this new age of cyberbullying, so we are not necessarily looking to punish kids, we are just looking to make school inviting and comfortable for all.”

For those situations they see as requiring discipline, school officials try everything before they go to more severe punishments such as suspension.

“We have no-contact contracts, we can have parent conferences, we can involve our school psychologist. We reach for all those tools before there is a suspension,” Navarro said. “However, I believe that I can suspend if need be, but I also have the school resource officer who can be involved with any investigation that is spilling into our campus.”

Rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have started to inject their voices into debates about student rights in cases involving some type of bullying. In 2011, when a teen in Citrus Heights near Sacramento was suspended after calling his biology teacher “fat,” among other things, on Facebook, the ACLU intervened on his behalf, saying in a letter to his school that because his post “posed no actual threat of substantial and material disruption, it was protected speech for which (the student) may not be disciplined.”

While the case never was brought before a court because the school backed down after the letter was sent, it’s an example of what schools are increasingly having to face.

The increasingly complicated legal questions regarding cyberbullying are not likely to be solved anytime soon, and with advances in technology every day, cyberbullying is likely to adapt into other forms that may be harder to police.

Schools are going to have to figure out the best path to fight cyberbullying. Some schools, including Central Valley High, already are using a variety of means to fight it, such as the prevention methods mentioned above.

We will have to wait to see whether or not they are successful at combating bullying, but schools are unlikely to stop the fight anytime soon.

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