Education
8:00 am
Fri July 12, 2013

Cyberbullying Law Gives Educators Power To Intervene Outside Of School

Gabrielle Molina was a seventh grader in Queens, New York.  Her friends and parents say that she was smart.  She was ambitious and loved science. Her father said that she wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and then study law.

On May 23 her 15 year-old sister forced open their bedroom door and found her lifeless.  Gaby hung herself.  She was 12.  In her suicide note she apologized to her family and said that she was bullied.

78% of teens have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day, and bout three in four teens access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

Her classmates harassed her, calling her a slut, and teased her about looks. They even posted a video on the internet showing the 5-foot-tall girl getting beaten.

Cases like these have become all too common and have prompted legislative action.  Governor Rick Scott this year signed into law an expansion of Florida's current anti-bullying statute to include "cyberbullying."

The new law, which went into effect on July 1, gives schools more power to intervene in cases of cyberbullying that take place outside of school.  In the past, administrators’ ability to act was limited. They could only intervene if the bullying occurred on school property, in the course of a school-sponsored program, or on a school bus. Now if cyberbullying "substantially" interferes with or disrupts the educational process, administrators may regulate and punish it — even when it originates on a computer or device off campus.

"As an educator and legislator, I'm pleased to see that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle came together to bring this bill to law," said state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. "In our digital age and society teachers and administrators need the ability to protect our Florida gems from the unwanted attacks students receive online."

Bullying is not new, but the far-reach of 21st century technology is.  This is the age of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the ever-growing world of social media -- where insults and names and embarrassing moments no longer live in our memories or slam books or notes, but they have the potential to live forever in cyberspace.

And teenagers are hooked on technology and more connected than ever before.  They text, they tweet, instagram, snapchat, facebook and vine.  Yes, these are all verbs now.  And it is almost impossible to monitor.

According to a 2012 Pew Internet Project survey, 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day.  About three in four (74 percent) teens ages 12-17 say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices.

Teens today are more acutely aware of their popularity – quantitatively measured in the number of friends, followers and/or likes received on their social media sites – and reputation than any other segment of the population, are constantly communicating and grooming their online presence. 

Between classes, during lunch and any chance that they get, kids are on their phones or tablets.  And with the ability to photograph and videotape just about anything, at any time, anyone can be victimized.  And one mistake can live forever online. 

And very often, they do.  Gone are the days when the worst thing that a bully did was steal your lunch money.  With the prevalence of the internet in teenagers’ everyday lives, it may become very difficult – even next to impossible – to escape the torment. 

Cyberbullies send mean text messages or emails, spread rumors on social networking sites, and send or post embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or create fake profiles. A bully’s torment is no longer restricted to school; it is a constant onslaught of cyberattacks that reach kids at home, and on their most precious device, their cellphone.  And because quite often the attacks are posted anonymously, the origins are difficult to trace.  And once something is posted online, it can be difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – to remove.

The results can be tragic, like they were in the recent case of 15 year-old Monique Griego of Maryland who committed suicide after online bullies assaulted her with messages like, “I hope you die.  Go kill yourself.”

Or the case of the 15 year-old Audrie Pott, a California teen who was a member of a middle school marching band that performed at President Obama’s first inaugural parade in 2009.  Who, like Rehtaeh Parsons of Canada, committed suicide after allegedly being raped and then cyber-bullied after the attacks.  Having photos of themselves -- during the attacks -- go viral.

Or Jessica Laney, a popular 16 year-old soccer player in Pasco County. She received constant anonymous messages telling her that she was fat, she was mean, no one liked her.  Messages telling her that she should die.  Jessica hanged herself.

These are the senseless tragedies that this new law seeks to avoid. But alone, it cannot end cyberbullying.  Kids live their lives online.  They are constantly connected.  More than ever, it is important for parents to keep track of what their kids are doing, both in the real world and the cyberworld. 

This new law can be dangerous because it could give parents a false sense of security.  In most cases, school officials were already intervening in the case of bullying. 

In the case of Gabrielle Molina, after the video of the fight went viral, a school counselor set up a meeting with Gabby's parents and between the two girls.  No one knew the extent of the cyberbullying, except Molina’s friends and older sister, who did not speak up until after the girl’s death. The same is true in the Griego, Pott and Laney cases.  No adult in those girls’ lives knew about the cyberbullying that they endured.

Parents are a child’s best advocate.  More than ever, it is important for them to know what is going on in their lives and to monitor their cellphone and Internet activity.  And kids also need to know that it is important to come forward and ask for help when they or a friend are in danger.

Schools, administrators and teachers are doing everything they can to keep kids safe, but we don’t go home with them.  And we cannot police kids’ ever-growing online activity outside of school.  Too often, we do not discover what is going on at home, until something tragic happens. 

Neyda Borges, a University of Miami graduate, lives and works in Miami Lakes, where she teaches English and journalism at Miami Lakes Educational Center. She is the Language Arts Department chair, The Silver Knights Coordinator, and advises the school's newspaper and yearbook. Borges was selected the Region I Teacher of the Year in 2011 and was one of the five finalists for the county's Teacher of the Year.