Are new school anti-bullying laws fair, or unreasonable?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
As the new school year begins, students and educators are reminded that it’s been just shy of a year since the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi brought the issue of school bullying into the national spotlight.
The Rutgers University freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York last Sept. 22 after learning his encounter with another man in his dorm room had been viewed on a laptop webcam. His death prompted a public outcry, and national news began extensive reporting on similar incidents elsewhere in the country. These included 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide when she was bullied at her Massachusetts high school by classmates, and 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri, who did the same when she was bullied on MySpace.
State legislatures have responded by passing laws to curb bullying in school. Sixteen states – including California, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont – passed anti-bullying laws, 14 of them protecting against bullying because of sexual orientation and sexual identity. These laws have resulted in new school policies, range from kindergarten-level workshops stressing the harm in bullying, all the way up to high school policies that hold bystanders who don’t report bullying accountable.
Now, educators and advocates are asking if these school bullying laws go too far, placing unreasonable demands on educators and violating students’ First Amendment right to free speech.
In New Jersey, school administrators are protesting that the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights law, which went into effect on Sept. 1. They say it places too heavy a burden on school districts while not providing them with the money needed to implement the law. Considered the strictest in the nation, the law requires each school to adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies, provide teachers and staff with training on handling bullying situations, and act quickly to report incidents of bullying. The state’s Department of Education monitors and grades each district; superintendents and teachers who don’t meet the requirements could lose their licenses.
East Hanover School District’s superintendent, Joseph L. Ricca, told the New York Times: “We really want to be able to implement this new law and achieve results, [but its] sheer scope may prove to be a bit unwieldy and may require some practical refinement.”
In Connecticut, a cyberbullying law was passed that would allow students to be punished by their school for comments they make in online forums – harassing their classmates via Facebook, for instance. The law is similar to one in nearby Massachussets, which allows schools to punish students for online messages and comments that create a hostile environment or disrupts school. The Connecticut law takes this further, allowing students to be punished for online speech that “causes physical or emotional harm” or places a student in fear of such harm, in school or out.
This is a tricky area, since some view this as a violation of the bully’s First Amendment right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Morse v. Frederick that students can, under certain circumstances, face school discipline for actions off school grounds. The court has not yet ruled on whether “off school ground” applies to the Internet as well, and lower courts are divided on the issue. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a Western Pennsylvania school violated the First Amendment by punishing a student for creating a Facebook group defaming a teacher; the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school was within its rights to discipline a student who started a MySpace page attacking fellow students.
In an interview with the Connecticut Mirror, Sandy Staub of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “Let’s stop the wave of creating these cyberbullying laws for a few minutes and think about how we can both protect students and speech rights at the same time.”
What do you think?
Do new school bullying laws go too far? Are states placing fair regulations on school districts to safeguard against bullying? Or are they imposing unreasonable demands without providing rescources to meet them? How about cyberbullying – does Connecticut’s law violate students’ right to free speech? Does your school have new bullying rules? If so, do you think they are fair? Join the discussion!
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