Missouri's new "cyber-bullying" law went into effect last Friday. The law directs school districts to take specific policy positions against intimidation by new forms of technology. Little change is expected, however, in how schools conduct their disciplinary policies.
Under Senate Bill 818, signed by then-Missouri Governor Matt Blunt in June 2008, the term "cyber-bullying" is to be placed into school policy handbooks in every district in the state. Districts have been mandated to have anti-bullying policies since 2007.
The law changes the definition of unlawful harassment to include electronic communication and expands stalking to include two or more acts through any means of communication. Harassment is defined as any intentional conduct that without good cause "frightens, intimidates or causes emotional distress."
The law also requires school boards to implement a written policy requiring administrators to report harassment and stalking committed on school property to local police. This includes any communication over the Internet or through text messages while on school grounds.
A "credible threat" was defined as "those made with the intent to cause the person who is the target to reasonably fear for his or her family's safety or family's pet's or livestock's safety, and not only his or her own safety."
Lawmakers passed the new law in response to the suicide of teenager Megan Meier, of Dardenne Prairie, in 2006 after she had been harassed by a neighbor posing as another teen.
In signing the law, Blunt released the following statement: "We must take every step possible to protect our youth and to punish those who want to bring them harm. Social networking sites and technology have opened a new door for criminals and bullies to prey on their victims, especially children."
Monett R-1 School Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann said no changes have been made to the district's anti-bullying policy yet this fall. A policy recommendation is expected shortly from the Missouri School Boards Association.
"There is a mechanism to track use of district technology," Jungmann said, "but 90 percent of time we will depend on reports from students and parents."
|Princess Fox, counselor at Monett High School, said cyber-bullying for the most part happens outside of school time. Fox said it is unclear what role the school should take about communication not done inside school buildings.||"If students are hearing things outside of school and if it affects their education, we deal with that," Fox said.|
Fox offers a "mean girls" conversation for students at the middle school, explaining how peer pressure and intimidation can work, bracing students for what they might encounter.
"A lot of it is about reputation or being popular," Fox said. "There's a lot of back-and-forth bantering between kids. A lot of cyber-bullying is easier because it's not face to face. It may be more aggressive than what someone would say in person."
School officials may not even know about cyber-bullying because of its invisible nature. Fox said her role as a counselor shifts to teaching students how to respond on their own, if necessary.
"A lot of it for us is giving students the tools they need for how to deal with it, how to be safe themselves and how to get help." Fox said. "I urge them to tell their parents. A lot of it happens outside of education's jurisdiction. Parents need to know about it. Students need to know how to approach it."
Fox recommends that students refrain from responding to cyber-bullying other than reporting the incident to a trusted adult.
"(Responding) just riles (the bullies) up. If it's an issue that's getting them distracted in the classroom, I advise them to refocus by sitting down and writing what's important in school, Fox said. "It may be difficult to see those kids here at school. A lot of it is avoiding retaliation. It may be tricky to deal with. If students come up to us, we talk to them about it. We try focusing on life skills."
Opinions vary on the impact of the new law. Kelli Hopkins, a director for the Missouri School Boards Association, said the authority for disciplinary enforcement was already in place. Hopkins saw more of a philosophical change than a legal shift.
The law did offer two scenarios where what had been a misdemeanor would now be classified as a class D felony. If an person age 21 or older harasses someone age 17 or younger, as in Megan Meier's case, an infraction would be deemed a felony. A repeat offense would also be considered a felony, regardless of when the first incident occurred.
Attorneys around the state have also questioned what schools can legally do about intimidation taking place outside of school property.
Fox expects some of these points to become clearer as situations.
"The more students are aware that comments made on the Internet is part of bullying, the more likely they will go to someone for help," Fox said.