We have just updated one of our most popular resources. You can find our latest bullying law fact sheet here. As you can see, all but 2 states now have bullying laws in place or scheduled to take effect in 2012. Most of these (35) include language about electronic forms of bullying while still relatively few (10) use the term “cyberbullying.” Several states have proposals being discussed for new or updated laws.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am skeptical about the ability of new laws to (by themselves) change behavior. I was talking with a friend last week about cyberbullying and he thought that the solution to the problem was simply to pass strict laws that punish those who bully others. When confronted with an opportunity to bully, the logic goes, a youth will think twice because they will not want to be arrested and punished (fined or even incarcerated). This is a reasonable idea in theory, but the fact is that teens are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of formal punishment. Spend some time reading the deterrence research literature and you will see that formal deterrence just isn’t effective, especially for adolescents. Informal deterrence, however, has shown to be useful. That is, youth are reluctant to get involved in behavior that they feel their parents or good friends would disapprove of. They don’t want to be “punished” by those they care about. Plus, it is a lot more likely that friends or family members will find out about their inappropriate behaviors than the formal justice system. So the bottom line is that educators, parents, and others who work with teens need to consistently condemn all forms of harassment so that youth will pick up the message that bullying is just plain wrong.
All of this is not to say that I do not see value in bullying laws, assuming they are reasonable and implementable. As I have discussed often on this blog, laws should be prescriptive by telling school officials and others (parents, law enforcement, etc.) what they can and should be doing to prevent and respond to bullying. But they should also provide resources so that these mandates can be carried out effectively. (see my analysis of New Jersey’s recently-enacted law for more discussion of this). Passing a law that merely prohibits bullying, or that requires schools to have a policy prohibiting bullying, does little to stop the behaviors if resources (money, professional development, and technical assistance) are not also made available. This is especially true for school officials who are genuinely interested in curtailing the harassment that is impacting their students and school.
Back to the new fact sheet. We also added an additional column to our summary table on the first page which specifies whether the state statutes explicitly allow for the discipline of students for their bullying behaviors that occur off of school property or outside of a school sponsored event. We know that most cyberbullying does occur away from school, and as a result some educators have been reluctant to get involved. A few states have included language in their new statutes which clarifies the school’s responsibility and role when it comes to off-campus incidents (see especially, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey for good examples).
It needs to be pointed out, however, that even without this language in the new laws, current case law certainly does allow schools to reasonably and appropriately discipline students for their off-campus behaviors (such as cyberbullying), if the behaviors result or have a likelihood of resulting in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school. This is the exact language used in many of the new laws because this is the standard that was established in the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines back in 1969. Subsequent Supreme Court and other federal court decisions have applied this standard to a variety of situations, including the online behaviors of students. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently reviewed two cases where students used web sites to denigrate their principals. Even though the court ultimately sided with the students in both cases—saying that their respective schools went too far in disciplining them—the opinion clearly defended the substantial disruption standard that has long governed the actions of educators when confronting problematic student behavior that occurs away from school. Judge Jordon noted in a concurring opinion that: “The issue is whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker, can be applicable to off-campus speech. I believe it can, and no ruling coming out today is to the contrary.” You can read my full analysis of this decision here.
In summary, take the time to review your state’s bullying law and make sure it is useful to you whether you are an educator, parent, or other concerned citizen. Don’t wait until something bad happens to get educated. Upon reviewing your state’s law you may find that it is insufficient or unclear and now is the time to lobby (and educate) your elected officials. Also take the time to review your school policy concerning bullying and harassment. Is it consistent with the law and does it provide you with the tools you need to effectively prevent and respond to bullying? Does it explicitly cover cyberbullying or other forms of bullying that occur away from school? What does it say about those behaviors that occur away from school?
We will continue to update this fact sheet regularly as new laws are proposed and passed so feel free to bookmark the link (http://cyberbullying.org/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf) so that you always have the most recent version. And if you are aware of any new proposals or laws in your state that are not included in our fact sheet, please let us know.