Internet abuse and schools
Public school students involved in cyberbullying, sexting and other forms of online abuse can suffer grave consequences. It’s important for parents to talk to their children about these things and for them to be aware of what can happen.
Maryland laws and regulations give school superintendents a lot of power to deal with these abuses as instances of online abuse are disruptive to the school community. Under the law, so long as the disruption is substantial, the student responsible can be suspended or even expelled.
But what exactly constitutes a “substantial” disruption is left up to the discretion of the individual superintendent— that is why they have so much power.
Suffice it to say if the abuse impacts the ability of the school to operate in a safe and orderly manner, or if the abuse interferes with any student’s education, the disruption is likely to be deemed substantial. The school may act even if the interference is with the education of the student responsible for the abuse.
Moreover, the law gives the superintendents authority to act even if the abuse took place entirely outside of the school grounds, even if no school computers or school Internet connections were used.
Because the laws and regulations of Maryland grant such broad authority to school superintendents, parents need to know how to recognize if their child is involved in online abuse, cyberbullying, sexting, or the newest twist on this fast evolving theme, digital dating violence.
All of these things share a common thread: one student intentionally causing injury or harm to another student through use of the internet. Usually the harm is to the target’s reputation, but occasionally the result can be physical.
In the typical case, both students are in the same school district or the same school. They are also usually of either the same age or within the same age group; most likely adolescents, teens or young adults.
Looking beyond the names and labels of this new and evolving problem, the mediums through which this new form of abuse occurs are very broad. Online abuse can take the form of a humiliating post on Facebook or other social networking sites concerning a student. Alternatively, it may take the shape of instant messages or text messages sent from cell phones or computers either inside or outside of the school setting.
Other possibilities include the transmission of sexually suggestive words by or about one student to another; the sending of sexual images of a student to another, either with or without permission; or the transmission of false news or communications concerning a student.
Again, the common theme is that these acts are likely to result in the student victim becoming the target of public ridicule, or, in extreme cases, physical harm, often at the victim’s own hand.
Those above primary school age, as stated, are less likely to be either the perpetrators or victims of online abuse. At the same time, those who fall into that age group are, as a whole, unaware of how pervasive this new form of online student abuse actually is within our communities.
For example, 20 percent of school-aged students report that they have either themselves been the victim of sexting or have receiving and/or republished a sexting image, according to one nationwide study.
The common perception among parents and other adults is that the press over-reports on this topic. Some even argue that by focusing on the tragic cases, such as when a student commits suicide after being the target of scandalous internet posts, the media embolden would-be offenders and, perversely, encourage online violence.
I’ve handled a number of these cases, both on the side of the victim and on the side of the offender. It’s been my observation–and I wish it were not true–that this new form of easily-perpetrated but gravely serious abuse cannot be ignored. The problem is growing and it will not simply go away.
This is not to say that a long, hard look at the new laws against online violence isn’t warranted. Many of these laws were enacted in haste, and thus many greatly overreach. As a result, school-age children risk their educations and their futures, often simply because they casually deride or insult each other online.
Some of these laws have already been declared unconstitutionally over broad, or have been struck down for other reasons. The difficulty, of course, is in fashioning a law that protects students but doesn’t infringe on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. It is extremely difficult to walk both sides of the street on this issue, striking the proper balance between protecting free speech and curbing the tragic and sometimes fatal results of online abuse.
It is time for parents to overcome their ignorance and face facts: this is not a problem that is just going to go away. State governments and schools recognize this fact; that is why we have many harsh laws going on the books to deal with the problem. Therefore, it behooves every parent to know what online abuse is, to talk to their children about it, to lessen the likelihood that the child will ever become involved in the problem.
Patrick J. Hoover is a principal attorney at HooverLaw.