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School board to review cyber-bullying policy

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Education > Debate focuses on where to draw the line

By Tris DeRoma

According to the state, the school district has until August to implement a cyber-bullying policy in an effort to tackle what appears to be a growing problem. To that end, school board and district officials started on the long process of defining just what cyber-bullying is.

The board was notified by Assistant Superintendent Gerry Washburn that they had until August to implement a policy, as instructed by the state. The N.M. Legislature passed a bullying law that called for every school board to have a bullying prevention policy by 2011, a bullying prevention program by 2012 and a cyber-bullying policy by 2013. At a meeting in July, Washburn presented a policy to the board for review, one the district had written up by its law firm.

Board members had many questions, one of them being how is the district governing social media between students and teachers.

“What’s the thinking in regards to that whole area,” Board member David Foster asked. “....maybe we’re opening up two communities of communication that are better to be kept separate.”

Washburn admitted that that area has been a little hard to define.

“I think in general, we are struggling to address social media, and what we call the “Gen Y” kids. “This current generation has generally had the Internet at their fingertips since birth. So when we talk about social media we have to think about the world they’re used operating in and we have to be careful unintended consequences.”

Washburn added that the district isn’t at a total disadvantage; they do have some rules in place already.
“If we have teachers using some type of social media to get feedback on assignments, I think that’s very appropriate,” he said, noting a few social media sites that some teachers are using that are education-friendly. He also noted for the board that the enacted legislation required districts to educate incoming teachers, students and parents on the appropriate uses of social media, which they are doing.

“That becomes a big part of what we’re talking about, about how we design those methods of getting the message out to parents on what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, so they themselves can monitor how their children are using Facebook and whatever else they may be using,” Washburn said the board.

After examining the policy, board member Dr. Kevin Honnell said he had many concerns regarding the new policy. Honnell said one thing he’d like to see in the policy are criteria that specifically penalizes written harassment, a term he said was key to bullying by computer.

“...It seems to me what’s missing here, and it’s germane to cyber-bullying, is written harassment and written bullying. That’s missing from these definitions, and that’s a loophole we want to close,” he said to the board.

“Someone could say well I did not do anything physically, and I did not do anything verbally; this policy just does not apply to me.”

Honnell also thought the term “cyber-bullying” needs to be referred to throughout the policy for consistency. He also wanted to know how the school was going to deal with people that use their own computers to harass or bully someone.

“It only refers to hardware that is owned and acquired by the schools,” he said. “So it does enable a student to go home and use Google Apps from their own computer and bully the heck out someone.”

Honnell also had an issue with the term “strongly discouraged” a term found the sections of the policy that dealt with inappropriate communication and interactions with staff.

“This means that this is all just a suggestion,” he said. …”I’m not sure what we’re trying to accomplish by ‘strongly discouraging’ someone. We either want them to have child pornography and sexual exploitation, or we don’t, I don’t know why we’re just discouraging it.”

To all of Honnell’s questions, Washburn replied that the board is free to customize the policy as it sees fit.

Board President Jim Hall noted that a distinction must also be made that their cyber-bullying policy isn’t replacing any other bullying policy the district has in place. “If we have to have two different policies, let’s make it so the distinction is clear, and we aren’t overlapping.” he said.

Hall also had some concerns about whether or not the policy would include what students do off of school grounds.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt replied that was a core issue that he and his administration have been working on.

“When Gerry and I thought about this, we determined it really has to be about if it’s causing a disruption in school,”’ Schmidt said. “If it’s going on in your personal life, I really don’t want to be the policeman, but if somehow it finds its way onto campus, where people are running down the halls and showing people, then it becomes a school issue. That is the distinction we are currently trying to draw,” Schmidt told the board.

Honnell then asked what happens if the bullying is being supported by school-owned software but is originating from off-campus.

Hall added that he felt uncomfortable about monitoring every comment made by a student in the realm of social media, whether that be by email, blog, Facebook or Twitter. He felt whatever policy they come up with must focus on the student.

“My belief is if it (bullying) affects a student’s performance, then we should have a policy where we can at least attempt to intervene,” Hall said. “...I think our focus has to be on if it’s affecting the student.”

Los Alamos Federation of School Employees President Ellen Mills wanted to know if students or school employees could be held liable for something that’s on their social media page that they don’t know about, or if they accidentally do something that violates the policy.

Schmidt also added they are also struggling with the rule that it becomes bullying when the action is repeated.

Hall summed up by saying “There’s all sorts of things in here that can cause problems.”