North Carolina students must take note: Starting this month, going online to harass teachers or principals could mean an arrest.
A new cyberbullying law in the state makes it a misdemeanor for students who commit various online offenses against school employees, such as creating false profiles, signing them up for Internet pornography, or posting personal images and private information.
The law, which took effect Dec. 1, appears to break new ground nationally. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina says the state is the first to impose criminal penalties on students for such actions.
Controversy is already churning over whether that’s a point of pride or shame.
Some teachers say the law provides a weapon against online attacks that can be emotionally and professionally devastating. While belittling teachers is as old as the one-room schoolhouse, malicious material on the Web has a far greater reach than whispered nicknames, bathroom graffiti, and caricatures scrawled on notepaper.
“The more access kids have to computers, we found that it was getting more pervasive,” said Judy Kidd, an Independence High School teacher and the president of the Charlotte-based Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, a professional association for teachers in the state.
Ms. Kidd persuaded state Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican, to introduce the bill. It passed with strong bipartisan support.
Mr. Tucker said teachers need protection from students who use the Internet to spread false accusations. “These children are bright and conniving,” he said.
The ACLU of North Carolina is gearing up to fight, urging students who are charged to call the group for legal assistance.
“Nobody else feels like it’s necessary to criminalize student speech online,” said Sarah Preston, the policy director for the state’s ACLU chapter. Students age 16 and older could go to jail for up to 60 days, she noted—even for posting true statements.
“Essentially, what we’re teaching students is it’s not OK to criticize government officials,” Ms. Preston said.
Students are just starting to learn about the law. Some interviewed recently said online harassment merits punishment, but a criminal charge that could affect college admission and job opportunities seems harsh, especially for a first offense.
“Once they see it’s wrong, most people will stop doing it,” said Tyshanae White, a senior at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte.
Crime vs. Criticism
About five years ago, a teacher in the 141,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system discovered that someone had created a fake MySpace page in his name and posted material implying he was a pedophile.
District investigators traced it to students at Providence High School and charged those students with cyberstalking.
But Kenny Lynch, the school district detective who specializes in online issues, said the charges were dismissed because the offense didn’t fit that law, which requires physical threats or a repeated pattern of messages intended to abuse or embarrass someone.
The new law will provide a tool for prosecuting such cases, Mr. Lynch said, and for investigators to get subpoenas.
Mr. Lynch said he gets a couple of complaints a month about students conducting questionable online activity against school employees, but not all would merit criminal prosecution.
For instance, he was recently looking into “derogatory” Twitter comments about a teacher at Hough High School. The tweets didn’t use the teacher’s name and may fall “more in line with freedom of speech,” he said.
Drawing that line will be a challenge confronting educators, police officers, and prosecutors.
The ACLU argues that the law gives them too much discretion, raising the prospect that students could face charges for criticizing administrators or accurately reporting offensive comments made by a teacher. And the group says the penalty—up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine—is too harsh.
“Maturing students often say or post online things without fully understanding the consequences,” says an ACLU fact sheet on the law. “They should not receive a criminal record and be saddled with a lifetime of damaging consequences simply for posting something on the Internet that a school official finds offensive.”
Harm to Teachers
Nora Carr, a former communications chief for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, recalled a 2007 incident in which a YouTube video of a young female elementary school teacher appeared.
At a 5th grade “graduation” ceremony, someone in the audience had zoomed in on her rear end and set the video to the Van Halen song “Hot for Teacher,” according to Ms. Carr and an article written at the time.
According to the article, the teacher couldn’t get YouTube to remove the video until district officials intervened.
Ms. Carr, who is now the chief of staff for North Carolina’s 73,500-student Guilford County schools, said district investigators never found the source of the video but suspect it was an adult in the audience who taped and produced it.
It’s an example of how troubling online harassment can be, even if there’s no false information, Ms. Carr said. She said the teacher was so upset by the incident she left the profession.
“The harm multiplies exponentially when you put something out on the World Wide Web,” Ms. Carr said. “You can’t pull it back once you create it.”
Ms. Kidd of Independence High recalled an instance in which 5th and 6th graders got the email password for a younger student and used it to send sexual emails to teachers. “It was very disconcerting to have students looking at them in a sexual way,” Ms. Kidd said.
Ms. Carr and Mr. Lynch both said extreme offenses by students were more common several years ago, when most had less experience with social media.
Today’s students may have learned from others’ mistakes, they pointed out. Mr. Lynch noted that while the students who created the fake MySpace page avoided criminal convictions, they were disciplined at school, and one senior saw a college admission derailed.
While teenagers may be savvy, the move in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and many other districts to let students bring their own tablet computers and cellphones to school means ever-younger students have easy Internet access.
Mr. Lynch said parents need to be “nosy” and check on how their children are using those devices.
As part of its move toward “bring your own technology” to school, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board recently approved a policy that requires “digital citizenship” training for students.
Mr. Lynch has long been doing Internet-safety talks. He said he tries to help students protect themselves from predators, but also from their own rash impulses. He’s incorporating the prospect of criminal penalties into his talks, he said, and warning students about the illusion that online actions are anonymous or private.
“Anything on the Internet, you’re creating a digital footprint of yourself that’s going to stay out there forever,” he said.
Kyle Ferrebee, a senior at Butler High School in the district, said he hasn’t heard much about students harassing teachers online, though it’s common for students to trade gripes on Facebook or Twitter. He said if students cross the line, educators should talk to them first. “If it proceeds, then step [the punishment] up a level,” he said.
Sarah Kerman, a junior at North Mecklenburg High School, agreed. She said the district needs to make sure students understand the new penalties and the definition of cyberbullying, but she doesn’t think cyberbullying against educators is common.
“A lot of people are aware of what the negative consequences would be,” she said. “There’s more of a sense that what you say is public.”
Copyright © 2012 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.C. Law Protects Educators From Online Harassment