States tackle teen cyberbullying

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WASHINGTON — Bullying used to be confrontations, starting rumors and making snide comments in person. Now it’s as easy as posting a comment on Facebook or tweeting anonymously about a classmate.

As educators and administrators start another school year, they’re also getting ready to take a new stance against cyberbullying.

In Texas, for example, a law comes into effect this school year that requires schools to have policies for dealing with cyberbullying that occurs on school property or at school events.

In Kansas, the education department launched a new anti-bullying hot line last week to supplement a 2008 law that mandates that schools have cyberbullying policies.

Beyond that, 11 states are reviewing proposals to update or implement cyberbullying laws.

All are attempts to bring the state’s approaches to bullying into the 21st century.

“For many people of a certain age, the word bullying tends to conjure up an image of a schoolyard skirmish, but in 2012 that’s not what bullying is at all,” said Chuck Smith, the deputy executive director at Equality Texas, a Texas advocacy group that aims to get rid of gender discrimination.

More Internet access and the widespread use of smartphones have helped lead to increases in cyberbullying, according to Catherine Bradshaw, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“In one instant they can send out thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of messages,” Bradshaw said.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a collaborative online project run by professors from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University, 45 states now have laws that bar electronic harassment, although only 15 states specifically refer to “cyberbullying.”

The Texas legislation, which passed last year with bipartisan support, requires school boards to incorporate cyberbullying prevention into their school codes of conduct and policies.

Texas’ new law defines bullying as “engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district.”

Kansas’ recent approach didn’t involve legislation. Instead, the Kansas State Department of Education partnered with the Kansas Children’s Service League, an organization that offers educational programs designed to ensure child safety, to launch a bullying-prevention hot line.

However, there are significant limitations to the new approaches, experts said.

The Texas law, for example, doesn’t mandate training and it doesn’t explicitly give school officials the power to punish students who cyberbully in their own homes. That leaves the school’s jurisdiction open to interpretation, a problem that affects much bullying legislation across the United States.

Further, the Texas law is unclear about whether teachers should control cyberbullying that occurs outside the classroom.

Decreasing education budgets across the states also make combating cyberbullying more difficult. Texas legislators ultimately had to eliminate mandatory training from the state’s law because of budget constraints, Smith said.

In Indiana, state Sen. Tom Wyss, a Republican from Fort Wayne in the northeast, is among those who’ve supported cyberbullying legislation in his state. New state Senate proposals are looking to address the issue, which Indiana doesn’t currently legislate against.

Wyss proposed a bill last year that would create a paper trail in cases of cyberbullying, but it was defeated after religious groups claimed that it unfairly advanced a gay agenda, he said.

Since the same Senate committee would hear these new proposals, Wyss said he wasn’t optimistic about their chances for success.

“We’re still living with legislation that was appropriate in 2005,” he said. “There are changes that have happened.”

To Mikaela Carson, Miss Kansas 2012 and the founder of Anti-Bullying Lifelines and Education, an initiative in which Carson, who’s 17, travels to Kansas schools to encourage other students to stamp out bullying, the recent increase in cyberbullying isn’t surprising.

“It seems like an evolution of the social bullying that’s been going on for years,” she said.

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