Home > Uncategorized > Bullying: not every problem can be solved by a new law

Bullying: not every problem can be solved by a new law

March 3, 2012

Attorney General Beau Biden and Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn are looking into why schools are reporting such low numbers of bullying incidents, proposing audits to see if schools are fudging the numbers.

The problem with reports is they rely on the bullied student to report the incident to the school or to the parents. Mystery solved.

Back in the day, there was no such thing as a bullying report. Bullying prevention happened when your Dad took you out in the back yard and taught you how to fight. Verbal abuse wasn’t considered bullying at all. But times have changed.

If you want accurate bullying reports, the grown-ups have to spot the incidents in progress and generate the incident report pro-actively, instead of just sitting around waiting for a fearful or embarrassed student to walk into the principal’s office, or an angry phone call from a parent. The walk-in or the phone call may never come – which is what the bullies are counting on.

Here, in no particular order, are some ideas:


Use the video data
My child’s middle school has video cameras in the hallways. Those tapes (assuming there are tapes) provide hundreds of hours of evidence of bullying incidents. Who is watching the tapes? How long are they retained? When do they get reviewed – only when a student or parent complains?

I hear stories of crowded hallways where an arm reaches out to whap you on the head, feet emerge to trip you, books are knocked out of your hand and onto the floor, epithets hurled, followed by mocking laughter – and no penalties.

If you want to audit school bullying reports, start by auditing the tapes for unreported incidents. Yes I know it is time-consuming and expensive. But how serious are we about this?

The state can set up recommended guidelines for in-school video which schools can opt into, and then help the schools pay for equipment and staffing. Any credible state-level anti-bullying program needs to have an inventory of school video cameras including their locations, their level of technology (HD, audio, etc.) and their retention policy (how long are tapes stored).

Mr. Denn said:

I’m just not prepared to accept the idea that the First Amendment protects eighth graders posting vicious videos of each other on YouTube or publishing venom about their peers on Facebook.

I certainly hope it does. If the First Amendment protects the speech of neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptist Church, surely it protects the speech of schoolchildren. Name calling and publicly taken videos are protected speech at any stage of life.

Bending the First Amendment is the wrong way to go, especially when there are so many other options we haven’t even tried yet.

Work with the social media sites
There are other sites, but let’s start with Facebook. Facebook has very permissive use policies that give full deference to the First Amendment. There is no prohibition against name-calling, no matter how cruel. And that is understandable. Banning legal speech is not something a corporation really wishes to get involved with, for good reason.

Still, the Attorney General should call up Facebook to see what can be done, or better yet, in conjunction with other state AGs. Perhaps there is something that can be worked out.

Facebook permits children as young as 13 to sign up for accounts, and even then there appears to be no real way to prevent younger children from obtaining accounts. One thing that can and should be done is that minors should not be allowed to sign up for Facebook accounts without parental consent, and a separate parental password. Can that be done by state law? I doubt it but it is worth looking into.

In the meantime, Delaware should go over each suspected cyber-bullying site line-by-line to look for other issues: violations of the law, or of the site’s terms of use, that might be grounds to take the site down.

Here’s another suggestion for Mr. Biden: Facebook, a Delaware company, is in the middle of a big IPO. You might want to drop the SEC a line like, right now, and let them know what’s going on, right now, with cyberbullies and Facebook. A well-timed editorial in the Wall Street Journal on the liabilities of hosting cyberbullies couldn’t hurt either.

Work with the ISPs
The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that provide Internet service to homes also have their own terms of use. which also are somewhat permissive. But both Comcast and Verizon prohibit transmission of content that is “defamatory.” You can’t sue a minor for defamation, but you certainly can try to persuade Comcast or Verizon to cancel their household internet connection for violation of its own terms of use.

Remove teacher penalties for reporting
Teachers have been told in no uncertain terms their jobs are on the line based on their student’s academic test scores. What incentive does a teacher have to give up instructional time to report a bullying incident in which no serious injury was caused except to self esteem?

If teachers are the point people for reporting bullying, figure out a way not to penalize them for the time taken to do it.

Put some money behind the talk
It’s time for the State to put some funding behind all this concern for bullying. Fund some staff to audit the videotapes. Install or upgrade cameras where needed (with local consent). Fund a technical team to track and publicly call out the external cyberbullying websites. Log onto the sites and use their internal reporting mechanisms to flag every cyberbully site as offensive.

Work with the parents
Everybody’s first impulse is to “hold the parents responsible” for bullying. But when you get right down to it, there aren’t a lot of ways to do that legally.

For cyberbullying, you can notify the parents of the offending speech by sending them a printout, or calling them to the school for an online demo of the offending speech.

And then you can add the offending website to an online index of cyberbullying sites (because we ARE tracking them, aren’t we?) Nothing like a little sunshine to clear up an infection.

Give the parents some tools
Give parents some tools and instructions for controlling access to specific websites from home. A good one is OpenDNS, which is a free online service that doesn’t even require you to install anything on your computer. It will allow you to block adult content, and to block any website you designate such as Facebook, YouTube, or game sites. I’ll have to write up a blog post on this someday and distribute it to PTAs.

Put some geeks on the case
As Mr. Biden well knows, we have well developed tools and processes for tracking child pornography. Cyberbullying isn’t child porn, but some of the skills for identifying it are the same. Use the tools, the methods, and the personnel.

Build a catalog of every site suspected of hosting cyberbullying, either victim or offender. Run an automated search for patterns of bullying words (surely we know the words by now). Keep the words in a database and analyze for trends. Look for patterns and associations to identify rings of cyberbullies.

If we can have undercover officers online pretending to be underage targets for potential pedophiles, surely we can have officers signing on and pretending to be targets for cyberbullying.

Perhaps we can’t prosecute cyberbullies or their parents, but we can certainly identify them and repost their words and links to their website onto a public “Hall Of Shame” website.

I mean, we are serious about this, aren’t we?

  1. lil
    March 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I certainly hope it does. If the First Amendment protects the speech of neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptist Church, surely it protects the speech of schoolchildren. Name calling and publicly taken videos are protected speech at any stage of life.

    I agree name calling etc should be protected. as well as opinionsll However in alot of the cyberbullying cases statements are made as direct facts or threats of physical violence are posted against an individual. If I posted something about you that you stole from your employee or I was going to “take you out” after work or school as an adult that would be prosecuted so I think those types of cyber bullying should be prosecuted. If i videotaped you in the bathroom at work and posted on facebook i could get prosecuted for invasion of privacy should kids not have the same protection?

  2. March 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for commenting, lil…

    Threats and privacy-violating pictures are already crimes at any age, so no new law needed there.

    You raise an interesting point about allegedly factual statements like “you stole money” (libelous) or “so-and-so is a slut” (defamatory). As an adult you would not be “prosecuted” because those are civil issues, not criminal. But an adult could be sued by the victim.

    But you can’t sue a minor, and I’m pretty sure you can’t sue the parent on account of a defamatory statement made by their child. In any case I don’t think either parents or the courts have any stomach for a rash of defamation lawsuits against schoolchildren.

    One interesting thing though is the ISPs (FIOS and Comcast) have provisions in their terms of use stating that libelous or defamatory statements are grounds for termination of the account. Now there’s something for Beau Biden’s crack team of cybersleuths to go after.

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