Attention focused on cyberbullying and its impact on students has prompted many states to pass statutes intended to prevent or address online harassment. But those state laws are varied, and experts say they run the gamut from effective to window dressing—or possibly unconstitutional.
At least 44 states have anti-bullying laws on the books. Six of those include language that specifically mentions “cyberbullying,” and 31 states have anti-bullying laws that specifically mention “electronic harassment,” according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, which tracks such legislation.
But the laws differ widely in their scope.
For example, the Massachusetts anti-bullying law, adopted partly in response to the suicides of students Phoebe Prince and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, specifically refers to cyberbullying and mandates that teachers and other school staff members report bullying to the principal or another administrator. It also requires prevention and intervention training for staff and students in every grade and requires that state agencies publish guidelines and sample policies for schools. The Massachusetts law is considered one of the most comprehensive in the country.
In contrast, Colorado has adopted a “legislative declaration” of policy on bullying. It contains no wording pertaining specifically to cyberbullying, says Sameer Hinduja, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, who is based in Jupiter, Fla. “It’s very vague,” he says. “Just because they have a policy, what does that mean?”
Francisco M. Negrón Jr., the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., says state anti-bullying laws can play an important role in helping schools address cyberbullying. But when those laws mandate action on the part of schools without providing additional dollars, “it amounts to unfunded mandates, and that’s not the best way to make sure something happens,” Negrón says.
Hinduja says he’s equally concerned about laws, like Louisiana’s, that criminalize cyberbullying, because he thinks they go too far. Online harassers in that state over the age of 17 face a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail, while younger offenders get counseling. Creating criminal penalties for such behavior is not going to deter cyberbullying, Hinduja argues.
“You have to remember that they’re students and their development is immature, and they don’t consider ramifications,” he says. “We’re villainizing these adolescents for basically screwing up, and we’ve all screwed up.”
The Reach of the Law
And state laws do have to consider reach, Negrón says.
The Massachusetts anti-bullying law defines the type of bullying that schools must address as not only the events that take place on school property and at school-related functions with school equipment, but also bullying that takes place “at a location, activity, function, or program that is not school-related, or through the use of technology or an electronic device that is not owned, leased, or used by the school district.” Though the law states that this bullying should be addressed if it “creates a hostile environment at school for the victim,” Negrón says it’s an area that remains unclarified by the courts.
Though many states are finally looking more closely at the problem of cyberbullying, it’s disappointing that it is often a tragedy that prompts the effort, Hinduja says.
“Everyone opens up their wallets when there’s a suicide,” he says. “It’s very frustrating because those lives could have been saved.”
Early in January, New Jersey enacted a tough anti-bullying law, which mandates training and prevention programs for adults and students. School districts will be graded by the state on their efforts to combat cyberbullying. The bill was signed into law four months after Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to videotape a sexual encounter he had with a male student. The roommate then broadcast the recording on the Internet.