A state law prohibiting cyber-bullying at public schools has been expanded to ban harassment through social networking websites.
AB 746 [PDF], authored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, modified an existing law prohibiting school bullying on cell phones and computers. The bill was signed into law last week.
The original cyber-bullying law targeted instant messages, text messages and e-mails sent to individuals. It did not apply to comments or pictures posted on social networking sites.
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Campos got involved in the issue after hearing about teen suicides connected to cyber-bullying, said Campos spokeswoman Dana Mitchell. She said the ubiquity of social networking sites created a need for the new legislation.
In 2006, Facebook was just starting to gain mainstream popularity, she said, and now, "it’s going to hit a billion (users) this year. And nobody was tweeting in 2006.”
According to a 2007 Pew Research Center study on cyber-bullying, 32 percent of teens have experienced some form of online harassment. And a string of national stories concerning teen suicides linked to anti-gay bullying – including the death of 13-year-old Seth Walsh in California – has heightened awareness of the issue.
Facebook recently announced a “Stop Bullying, Speak Up” campaign aimed at addressing, among other things, the recent proliferation of what are called "burn pages," Facebook accounts set up to tease or bully specific individuals.
"My hope is that the conversation will be more about what will happen to you if you engage in bullying on social networks,'' Campos told the San Jose Mercury News.
According to the state education code, students who engage in bullying or cyber-bullying face possible suspension and expulsion. Stephanie Papas, a bullying specialist with the California Department of Education, said it's up to administrators to determine if behavior is "materially disrupting the learning environment," even if that bullying is happening outside of school.
Under similar legislation [PDF] recently passed by the Senate Education Committee, students also could face suspension or expulsion for sexting. The bill defines sexting as sending electronic messages of a “minor’s body by a pupil to another pupil or school personnel with the intent to humiliate or harass.”
The conversation about cyber-bullying also highlights the tension between bullying and free speech. California Watch reported in January about a Mesa Verde High School student who posted a comment on Facebook calling his biology teacher a “fat a** who should stop eating fast food, and is a douche bag."
Administrators at Mesa Verde, in Citrus Heights near Sacramento, labeled the comments cyber-bullying and suspended the student. However, the principal decided to apologize and expunged the student’s record after the ACLU sent a letter to the school arguing that the comments were protected under the First Amendment.
Linda Lye, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said the newly expanded law rightly speaks to the growing concern about cyber-bullying.
“But at the ACLU, we are also committed to free speech rights,” she said. “The devil is in the implementation. Bullying is something that schools should take seriously. Our concern is when schools apply overly elastic definitions of bullying, like a student’s criticism of a teacher.”
Social networking sites have created more evidence that teachers and administrators can use to scrutinize students, she said.
“Before, it would have been a passing comment on the schoolyard,” Lye said. “Now, parents are coming in and saying,'Look what so and so said.' There’s more proof.”