As bullies go online, schools crack down

When students arrived this year for the start of school in Arlington, Texas, they were given a one-page contract to sign.

They would not send harassing e-mails to other students. They would not send offensive digital pictures, download video footage or hack into another student's e-mail account. They would not instant-message at all.

The detailed contract did not mince words: The school would be monitoring their computer usage, and students never should assume that anything they did online was private.

"We wanted to be extremely specific," said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the Arlington School District. "We felt like the only way to be sure people had really read the rules was to go with the signed contract."

Arlington is not alone.

A Pew Internet & American Life study released this summer found that as many as one in three teens who use the Internet had experienced some form of harassment online. And schools nationwide now are attempting to stop the scourge of bullying over the Internet -- dubbed cyberbullying -- which has become so prevalent that many experts say it is the most disruptive threat to the school day. Students as early as first grade routinely are asked to sign computer usage contracts, albeit in blocky print rather than cursive.

States from Rhode Island to Arkansas to Oregon have proposed legislation that would make cyberbullying between students subject to expulsion or prosecution -- whether committed at school, at home or via cell phone text message. But some students and their parents are challenging such laws as a violation of free speech; in a number of high-profile cases, they have won despite the unarguably vicious nature of some of their correspondence.

And a growing number of software companies are developing programs they say can detect the kind of harassment that once was characterized by insults and fists on the playground but that today increasingly is perpetrated behind a computer screen where a passing teacher is far less likely to see or stop it. Yet these companies say it will take more than high-tech solutions to fix the growing problem.

"There is so much damage going on over the Internet among young people today," said John Halligan, whose 13-year-old son, Ryan, was bullied for three years via instant message and e-mail. The boy eventually committed suicide.

"The kind of bullying that kids are facing today is almost impossible for some of us of an older generation to understand," Halligan said. "I've had a lot of kids tell me that they'd much rather deal with a black eye or a broken arm than to have someone spread mass rumors about them via the Internet."

After his son's death, Halligan, of Essex Junction, Vt., championed in his state some of the nation's first legislation related to cyberbullying in 2004. Today, numerous states and hundreds of schools are not only following suit but making rules far more strict and punishments more severe.

This fall, Rhode Island will consider one of the toughest cyberbullying laws in the country. Under the proposed legislation, students and their parents could be prosecuted if the student is caught sending Internet or text messages that prove disruptive to school.

"And that includes content that they send from private computers during nonschool hours," explained John Tassoni Jr., the state senator who proposed the bill. "The bottom line is that if what they are doing either from a school computer or from their own comes back to cause problems for the school, the school should be able to punish it."

Causing real hurt

Tassoni cited examples he had heard from principals of text messages or e-mails that resulted in physical altercations at school the next day, of bullying so severe that students avoided school to escape it and of the case of Ryan Halligan in Vermont.

"I think that well illustrates how serious this is becoming," he said. "Without fail, when I talk to school administrators and teachers, they overwhelmingly believe the issue of cyberbullying is one of the biggest issues in education today."

Other states are taking action. South Carolina recently passed a law that mandates school districts to define bullying, including cyberbullying. In Oregon, lawmakers have backed a bill that would require all schools to adopt policies that ban cyberbullying and allow for expulsion of those who are caught doing it.

In Arlington, Bernd said "a number" of students have been expelled or suspended from school for breaking their computer-use contract, and students are increasingly comfortable coming forward when they are being targeted online.

In many school districts, computer-use contracts are not entirely new. As schools went online in recent years, they began mandating the contracts.

But initially, the thought often was to protect students from outside predators -- adults who use the Internet to prey on youngsters and teens. Today, much of the intent is to protect students from the barbs of one another.

Question for the courts

There remains a big question about whether schools or courts can legally punish nasty comments hurled into cyberspace -- particularly those sent from private computers after school hours, as is the case of the bulk of cyberbullying, according to Tassoni.

In one of the earliest cases to go to court, a Pennsylvania middle school student created a Web page that attacked the school's principal. The page showed the administrator's severed head, blood pouring from her neck, under the question: "Why Should She Die?" The boy was never criminally prosecuted, but the state Supreme Court upheld his expulsion from school.

Yet since then, U.S. courts have proved reluctant to get involved in what many may see as an age-old problem: Children can, unfortunately, be cruel to one another. Steven Brown, the head of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, put it like this: "The fact that two teenagers say nasty things about each other is a part of growing up." Courts and prosecutors have largely agreed, concluding that the First Amendment covers even the most offensive online speech.

In New York, for example, two high school boys who were said to be operating a Web site that listed girls' "sexual secrets" were never prosecuted. In Washington, a federal court ruled that a local school district had violated a student's rights by suspending him after he posted mock obituaries of two friends.

Bernd said his schools will continue to punish -- and expel -- students caught breaking their computer-use contract and bullying other students online, both during and outside school hours. He said the school district's attorneys have told them to look for one standard when doling out discipline.

"Distraction is the key," Bernd said. "Anything that detracts from teaching and learning is something we're going to act on and something we believe we can legally act on. Kids are using this kind of technology to plan everything from fights to parties, and we're not going to let it interrupt our classes. We've been more than clear about what is and isn't acceptable."