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Breaking the law? One-third of districts don't include cyber-bullying in policies

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So-called "cyber-bullying" has schools across the nation struggling to figure out the best way to address it. Facebook has emerged as a platform where cyber-bullying often takes place.
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Today, a good deal of social interaction occurs over the Internet — including bullying. That so-called "cyber-bullying" has schools across the nation struggling to figure out the best way to address it.

During our six-month investigation, Minnesota Public Radio news found lax state oversight on bullying — no one checks whether districts and charter schools actually have the required bullying policies in place.

An examination of those district policies shows a wide-ranging patchwork. Three-quarters of districts and charters use a model policy that the Minnesota School Boards Association drafted.  That model is six-pages long; other districts have as little as one paragraph. 

Nearly a third of the state's school districts and charter schools' policies don't appear to define or refer to electronic bullying in their bullying policies.

That would appear to be a violation of state law, which states that bullying policies, "shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use."

"These days, there basically is no safety; there is no protection.  There's limitless vulnerability."

"I would say you can make a pretty good case that we're not in compliance by not specifically listing it, if the state lists it," said Tamara Uselman, the superintendent of the Perham-Dent school district in northwestern Minnesota.  

Perham-Dent is one of the districts that doesn't specifically cite electronic uses in its policy.  Uselman argues there's no need to specifically require a cyber-bullying ban, because her district's policy already bans all types of bullying.

"If anybody — any student or family — challenged me to say 'well we can bully in cyberspace because you didn't specifically list it,' I would say that is flat-out nonsense because the existing policy says 'you shall not bully.'"

The cyber-bullying section was added to the state's law in 2007.  Uselman suspects it was a reaction by adults who saw the Internet as different than any physical place where you can bully, like a hallway, so they felt the need to add it.  But Uselman said students today don't differentiate, and she tries not to either.

Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Charlene Briner said districts that don't reference cyber-bullying in their bullying policies might not be breaking the law because they might address cyber-bullying in a separate policy, like one on computer usage.

"We certainly are willing to, if we find it's necessary, to pursue a clarification in the language around bullying," Briner said.

State officials acknowledged they don't check to make sure school districts have bullying policies, in part, because no law requires them to.  And the department hasn't specifically sought funds this year to boost bullying prevention efforts, but Briner said that's because the agency is trying to fend off proposed deep cuts that she said would limit the department's ability to respond to all issues, including bullying.

Cyber-bullying gets a lot of focus, especially in the media, in part because it is the newest kind of bullying.  But there's another reason — its impact.

Justin Patchin researches cyber-bullying at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-directs the Cyberbullying Research Center.

"When I was bullied in middle school, I could go home, I could slam my door shut and I'd be safe from the bully," Patchin said. "These days, there basically is no safety; there is no protection.  There's limitless vulnerability."

Students can now call other students names online and anonymously.  They can easily create web pages or Facebook profiles that mock a classmate's weight or hygiene or intelligence.  Text messages can fly through a school in no time.

Patchin's research finds about 20 percent of students have reported being cyber-bullied.  That number has held fairly steady in recent years, and cyber-bullying incidents still make up a minority of the types of incidents. Face-to-face verbal bullying is still more prevalent.

Patchin said his research finds cyber-bullying usually starts as relatively minor name-calling that students usually don't consider bullying.  That's why he said it is crucial to address the issue quickly.

"If we fail to do that, teens aren't going to learn it's a problem and they may continue, or it may escalate," he said.

But addressing cyber-bullying can be a complex legal issue. How should schools respond if the bullying happens off-campus and online? 

The New Ulm district is among the roughly 150 districts whose bullying policy doesn't include any specific references to online or electronic bullying.  Superintendent Harold Remme said that doesn't mean the district ignores off-campus incidents, but just the opposite.

Remme said the school will look in to it if they find out someone has made a Facebook page that makes fun of a student, but said it starts to get into a gray area.

"What's our responsibility and what's not our responsibility?" Remme said. "I guess we look at it as we're trying to be as helpful as we can be to the students we serve."

The model bullying policy that most districts use does say that the policy applies to conduct at any time or in any place that interferes with school.  That suggests the model policy applies off-campus, but schools such as WISE Charter in north Minneapolis go further. The school's policy specifically makes note of and uses the words "off-campus."

Such differences between district policies trouble Walter Robers, a professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato who researches bullying.  He's pushing for a more detailed state law.

"There is no guarantee that the policies in one school district in the state of Minnesota will be consistent from district to district," Robers said.

It's an issue the state of Massachusetts addressed in a bullying law approved last year.  That law specifically states schools must act if anything that happens off school property affects what happens on school property.

"Rather than leave it ambiguous, we felt the better way to go was to be clear and direct about schools' obligations, so that school officials aren't left guessing, but rather their obligations are clear," said State Rep. Marty Walz, D-Boston, who was that law's chief author.

Researcher Justin Patchin said parents also have a crucial role in fighting cyber-bullying at home.  He said it's impractical to ban Internet usage, but parents could do things like become friends with their children on networks like Facebook, as a way to monitor their activity.