Iowa legislation would give schools more authority in cyber-bullying cases


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With the advent of the Internet and texting, coping with bullies has become more difficult for school officials. Newly proposed legislation in the Iowa House could give schools more authority to address cases of cyber bullying.

The legislation, introduced in the Iowa House by Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, expands the definition of electronic communication to include “social networking.” The bill also stresses the distinction between harassment and bullying, requiring online posting of anti-bullying policies, and protecting students’ First Amendment rights.

This bill comes just months after Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds held an anti-bullying conference in Des Moines in November 2012. More than 1,200 Iowans attended the Governor’s Bullying Prevention Summit, according to the governor’s website.

Iowa City School Board Member Tuyet Durau applauded the legislation but said the real solution comes from a lateral rather than top-down approach.

One positive example, Durau said, is the “West High Bros,” a group that sends compliments to individual classmates via Twitter and text.

This example of a friendly use of social media differs from its darker counterpart. Cyber bullying, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contributes in part to the third leading cause of death for people age 10 to 24: suicide.

The new legislation will help schools deal with the issue, said Jayne Hitchcock, an expert on cyber bullying.

“I just hope that this will makes schools take it seriously,” she said. “They think it’s just this thing kids do, but they don’t realize that with the Internet, bullying is 24/7.”

In a 2011 nationwide survey, an estimated 16 percent of high-school students reported they were bullied electronically in the previous 12 months, according to the CDC.

According to the legislation, this bullying “can seriously disrupt the ability of school employees to maintain a safe and civil environment and the ability of students to learn and succeed.”

But one educator said problems may arise with the last part of the legislation, which stresses protecting students’ First Amendment rights to express political, religious, or other protected categories of speech.

“I would worry most about who’s going to do the monitoring and make decisions about that,” said Associate Professor Kathryn Gerken, an official at the UI College of Education’s School Psychology program. “Let’s get real here — we know that sometimes the victimizer has been a victim themselves.”

Her concern, she said, is in how one proves that bullying actually happened without infringing on First Amendment rights. A student could easily say somebody bullied them without a real causation.

“You might have prejudicial thoughts about what kind of kids might be doing this,” Gerken said.
Problems could also arise in determining the line between harmless pranks and other, more malevolent behaviors.

“I think with technology expansions it can be hard to tell who’s perpetrating cyber bullying. No matter how much legislation you have, it can be hard to identify a culprit,” Durau said. “It takes having people involved with students’ day-to-day interaction.”

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