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If schools don’t regulate cyberbullying, who will?

3/20/2013

Oh, for the 1970s — were it not for those wildly ridiculous pants.

Those of us in older generations remember a time when K-12 educators were asked to teach reading and writing and arithmetic, with a field trip to the zoo or some such place thrown in maybe once or twice a year.

It was a straightforward job description with a clear mission involving young people. Get them to read. Get them to write. Get them to think.

When fights between students would break out, yes, of course, school officials intervened. And, sure, if a kid was getting “picked on” — a term I recalled we used instead of “bullying” — principals’ doors were open.

Parents generally would encourage their kids to stand up for themselves. And families were much larger decades ago around Iowa, so older brothers and sisters often were enlisted to protect siblings who were being harassed at school. If the bullying business started going too far, parents of the beleaguered would pay a visit to the home of the tormentor and put an end to it. It’s hard to imagine that happening in today’s hypersensitive and litigious world, where many parents’ reflexive position is to act as a blind advocate, a defense attorney of sorts, for their children, rather than allies of teachers and principals and other parents.

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Proposed state legislation (which cleared the funnel) would expand local educators’ authority to regulate and punish bullying or harassment that takes place outside of school, on popular social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, for example.

There’s no doubt that’s an issue.

But the large looming question is this: Do we want to deputize educators to police kids outside of the schools?

“I’m not sure we want to get into the position of what happens on weekends,” said Coon Rapids-Bayard Superintendent Rich Stoffers

The cyberbullying legislation emerged from Gov. Terry Branstad’s Bullying Prevention Summit in November.

We asked Branstad about the intent of the bill and the clearly legitimate concerns about boundaries expressed by educators like Stoffers.

“Actually, the school administrators of Iowa are supporting this change,” Branstad said in an interview last Monday in Jefferson following a town-hall meeting there. “One of the reasons is they feel under their present bullying law, they don’t have authority to deal with threats made against the lives or well-being of students that might be made on social media. So they want to have that authority to be able to protect a student that might be threatened.”

Branstad said that in certain cases in Iowa, cyberbullying has led to suicide.

The governor said he’s a steadfast defender of First Amendment rights, but he said that doesn’t extend to threats to life and limb.

One vital component of the bill is that parents and teachers who report suspected bullying are protected from lawsuits. That’s essential. Remember, reporting suspicion is not the same as making an accusation. There shouldn’t be a chilling effect when it comes to calling police and school officials about perceived disturbing behavior. If the professionals discover there’s nothing inappropriate, fair enough. Staying silent can’t be an option.

It’s unfortunate that we have to consider involving school officials in cyberbullying. But, increasingly, education is going online. The school experience, and teenage life itself, is as much virtual as it is brick-and-mortar, maybe more so when you break down where kids spend their time.

In the 1970s, the only thing kids could do to each other on computers was beat a friend in Pong, that most rudimentary of video games.

We’d all prefer to live in a world where schools could just teach, but we need to bring some law and order to the Wild Wild West of seriously ugly teenage insults on the Internet.

Schools are probably the best-equipped for that job. If they don’t do it, who will?

Unfortunately, as Stoffers points out, we seem to ask that question more and more of our teachers and school administrators. CV

Douglas Burns, a co-owner of The Carroll Daily Times Herald, is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist who offers columns for Cityview.

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