Cyberbullying: Throwing the Tormented Baby Out With the Bathwater

Cyberbullying. The word evokes myriad emotions. Since 2005, according to the NCSL website, 34 states have laws to prevent and prosecute cyberbullies. From Alabama to Wyoming, there are significant efforts to empower schools, review boards, and committees to punish cyberbullies where proof can be delivered for actions taken by one, or multiple, students picking on and teasing another. This was called something else in my day…bullying. You can invent a word, you can admit that technology has provided a new forum, but it is nothing more than what kids have been doing to one another since two or more were put in a small room together. I am not advocating bullying via any means, but one question comes to mind when I think of the scope of these laws: What could be waiting for us at the bottom of this slippery slope?

My mother brought me up reciting the old adage that, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Good advice as far as I could tell. Let the water roll off the ducks back, but I never had feathers. Words can hurt, and they did hurt. I was bullied and teased me when I was in school. I was poor, smart, and overtly awkward and nerdy. I was Sophomore class President, I was in Leadership class, and never went out for sports. I was an easy target, but in my day, if it wasn’t at school, school couldn’t do nothing. You ratted to your mom if anyone.

Bullying today seems to be on another level, or it is made out to be awful. I get the sense, having not experienced schoolyard bullying in more than a decade, that kids today are more articulate, vulgar, and unrelenting in their torment. I don’t know what this says about kids today, but cyberbullying certainly says a lot about the modern conveniences technology provides. Cowards today take to the Twitterverse and Facebook to lambaste and abuse a classmate. Gone are the days requiring face to face torment, technology has allowed for an efficient means to torment from the convenience of home.

Today, there are laws and regulations on the books empowering schools to enforce penalties for bullying outside the school’s direct purview. See this as an example:

Colorado 2005; HB 1036

Requires each school district, to adopt an internet safety plan consisting of a comprehensive, age-appropriate curriculum teaching the safe and legal use of the internet; encourages each school district to use existing internet safety resources available from nonprofit organizations and to work with local law enforcement agencies in adopting and developing the curriculum; directs each school district to identify a person who is responsible for overseeing implementation of the internet safety plan. Includes online bullying as a topic that the curriculum may address.

This is a terrifying precedent to set. The school is empowered to punish a child for what is done off school grounds, off school hours, on the internet? We have put this kind of power in the hands of a state/federal institution? What might be the next step we take after this to curb a misbehaving prepubescent? Perhaps the next step is to make laws allowing the school to hand out detention to a 10-year old for not doing his chores? Schools are here to educate your kids, not raise them. Pandora’s box, ladies and gentlemen…let’s see what inside.

What happened to freedom of speech? You can say what you will for this argument, but don’t minors have freedom of speech, too? When in school, as I understand it, students forfeit most Constitutional rights. How many times have we seen stories of student papers being silenced, shut down, or forbidden from running a story by the administration? I understand the need to avoid offending anyone or potentially undermining administrative authority inside a school, but what’s the deal with infringing on Constitutional rights of Americans for some vulgarity written on a message board?

OK, they are kids. By definition they are mentally handicapped–given the slow development of the frontal cortex–but they still have rights. Freedom of speech should be taken from anyone able to operate a computer up to the age of 18 if they torment someone? I don’t know about all of this. OK, on school grounds you best watch your tongue and look over your shoulder if a teacher is in earshot before you lay in to some poor sap, but to punish for exercising free speech on the internet outside of school? This is a dangerous sword to be swinging around.

As an American citizen I can write or say almost anything I want; almost. I cannot threaten the life of the President of any government official, and without proof I can’t accuse anyone of illegal activity. I cannot say that Rush Limbaugh is embezzling money to fund an illegal kiddie porn ring, but I can say he’s a creepy, pervy pill-popper. One is libel, the other is my opinion. My opinion is covered by freedom of the press and speech; libel is illegal. To call someone an idiot, bitch, whore, slut, asshole, or ugly is simply opinion, and violates no law that I know of. Well, no law until 2005 legislation was passed in Colorado.

Alright, it’s a stretch, but I look at this decision the same as people seemed to eye the Patriot Act. In response to fear of terrorist attacks, sleeper cells, and domestic terrorists, we gave up just about every right we have. Under the Patriot Act the government can run roughshod over your life, legally break in to your house without a warrant, and legally detain you without council or charges or trial for as long as they see fit. You might say that if you’re doing nothing wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide. I agree, but the issue is that the power wielded can be brought to bear for any reason, on incomplete information, and can be an invasion of privacy and an egregious attack on the Constitutional law some many of the people in this country seem to enjoy and are willing to defend to the death. The Patriot Act still exists nonetheless.

Just as in the knee-jerk aftermath of 9/11, the heartbreaking losses and emotions have run us aground on “Anything is better than nothing” rock. Just as in September some 10 years ago, we are scrambling to find meaning, and to prevent it from ever happening again. Next thing you know, schools will be monitoring activities online. Scares the shit out of me, quite frankly, that this kind of thing is acceptable, this kind of punitive reach of a school, in the lives of young people. An inch can lead to a mile a lot faster than anticipated.

What scares me most about laws like this is what can be next. When you empower an institution to punish an offense, the next step is prevention. To prevent something, you need to know about it before it is happening. What is a school to do? Start monitoring the internet activities of “problem students?” The school does the punishing–expulsion, detention, transfers, etc.–so why not put the onus for prevention on them, too?

There’s the rub. It’s not this step, but the next one. The responsibility may not be on the school now for prevention, but it might one day be on them. Schools are nothing more than federally mandated education institution administering a certified curriculum to students ages 6 to 18 for a 12 year period to get a legally binding certificate of achievement. Now, I understand that we entrust the safety of children to them, but is this really in their purview? In the last two years we have dissolved the collective bargaining rights of some teachers unions, skewered them for their “lavish” salaries, and now after shitting on these people we expect them to not just care for the education and well-being of children, but to be responsible for protecting them, too? You ask too much, sir.

Responsibility implies liability. The public outcry at the next teen suicide attributed to cyberbullying will be for heads to roll…and we’re not talking parents. People love to point fingers. When a death note of a child says they couldn’t take the bullying anymore, all eyes will turn to schools not doing anything, and if they did something well within the law, it will not have been enough. We’ve seen this before in school shootings, and in any case where there is an intractable outcome, the instinct that comes to mind first is who can we blame. We like a scapegoat in this country, and damned if a “lavishly” paid fourth year teacher isn’t a fine thing to hang in public square.

It is not the responsibility of a school to look out for the well-being of a child outside their walls. It is not the fault of the administration if someone is teased or beaten up during summer break. It is not the responsibility of a school or district administration to have to devote so much time and effort to curbing something that passes with graduation. The next step after empowering them for punishment is prevention. Prevention leads to monitoring, and now we’re in a Aldous Huxley novel we’ll never get out of–Brave New World, kids? Hell, you’ll get to it. It was required reading when I was your age. This is not the first step down this slope of administration and educator intervention in the private lives of students and parents and won’t be the last. This is however the first shot over the bow of monitoring internet activity, one PIPA and SOPA couldn’t pull off. It may have taken the suicides of children, but schools have expanded their reach, for better or worse, and it represents a dangerous precedent, and one I am sure many other state and federal institutions are taking notes on. I am just looking forward to the first metaphorical public hanging of a sixth grade teacher as a result.

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