At the same time, the internet has made bullying much, much worse than it was 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. Cyberbullying can include stalking, trolling, humiliation, harassment, or the spread of rumors, insults, or hate speech. It can occur in private—e.g. through text, email, or direct message—or publicly on social media. Perpetrators may breach victims’ computers to impersonate someone or steal private data, “doxx” (spread personally identifiable information about) someone, and even engage in “swatting”—making a fraudulent emergency call with the intention of sending a SWAT team to raid an innocent person’s home. Victims of cyberbullying frequently suffer severe emotional stress; they may become depressed or suicidal. Lest you dismiss this as “oversensitivity,” consider the means of cyberbullying: there’s no escape from the internet.
“Before the Internet, bullying ended when you withdrew from whatever environment you were in. But now, the bullying dynamic is harder to contain and harder to ignore. If you’re harassed on your Facebook page, all of your social circles know about it; as long as you have access to the network, a ceaseless stream of notifications leaves you vulnerable to victimhood. Bullying may not have become more prevalent—in fact, a recent review of international data suggests that its incidence has declined by as much as ten per cent around the world. But getting away from it has become more difficult.”
Cyberbullying is not only inexorable, but highly prevalent. Approximately a quarter (23%) of children and adolescents have reported experiencing online harassment. Schools and state legislators are taking notice: Texas recently passed Senate Bill 179—David’s Law—named after a 16-year-old boy who committed suicide after he was cyberbullied; and California is considering a bill that would “deter social media motivated attacks” in response to an incident in which a 14-year-old suffered a fractured skull and a blood clot in an assault that was uploaded to Snapchat.
Not all government decisions reduce bullying, however. Our current political climate has made life harder for the most vulnerable students. Those whose racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender identities align them with groups at the center of national debate face unique stresses and dangers at school. Bullies may target transgender students and children of immigrants, for instance. Young people absorb messages about what’s right and wrong from authority figures, and a presidential tweet is all it takes to increase a vulnerable student’s risk. Sadly, even with the best intentions, teachers and administrators often remain ignorant of these students’ concerns.
The law has also been slow to catch up. No federal law addresses bullying, and transgender students lost some of their federal protections earlier this year. And although states such as Virginia have statutes that cover harassment by computer, the role of schools in identifying and disciplining cyberbullies remains unclear.
Allegations of bullying may also come up against individuals’ First Amendment rights. In terms of online comments, what constitutes harassment and what constitutes free speech? The distinction can be made on a case-by-case basis, but as technology keeps evolving, a sweeping federal cyberbullying law could well have many unintended consequences.
What You Can Do to Stop Bullying
From a practical perspective, all of this means that parents need to stay vigilant and aware of what’s going on with their children. Laws may not adequately protect students, schools may not recognize the issues, and, for a variety of reasons, children may not always communicate about their experiences. Therefore, it is incumbent on parents to interfere whenever possible and report bullying to school officials to see what can be done. Schools must employ sufficient counsellors and school psychologists.
Parents and school officials aiming to effectively address bullying should seek assistance from an experienced education attorney. In my practice at Offit Kurman, I represent clients before all state and federal courts in Virginia, government agencies, local governments and school boards. My clients include families, individuals, area education associations, and businesses and other trade and professional organizations.
If you have a question about this or any education law matter, or if you need legal representation or services, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703.745.1812
ABOUT STEVEN STONE
Mr. Stone represents clients before all state courts in Virginia, before government agencies, and before local governments, school boards, and departments. His clients include area education associations, businesses and other trade and professional organizations; Families and individuals. He also has provided legislative and lobbying services on behalf of a wide variety of groups – labor, business, attorneys and doctors. He takes pride in the fact that most of his cases are quietly resolved in the best interest of his clients. His philosophy is that every reasonable effort should be made to settle legal claims or disputes in a way that protects his clients’ rights, and that costly litigation and adversarial proceedings should always be the last resort.
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