It began as a typical teenage scuffle: someone said something about someone's girlfriend, whose friends felt compelled to retaliate.
Overnight, administrators at the Hawaii Department of Education had a bigger problem than many thought possible from such an insignificant seed. Using Internet social sites like Myspace.com and cell phone text messaging, students blasted insults at each other from cyberspace and this sideline soap opera drama that soon enfolded students from both the Oahu and Big Island high schools cut into their ability to concentrate on classroom lessons and academic assignments the next day.
Officials turned to mediation from a private counseling group to refocus students back toward education. They then formed an ad hoc school board committee led by a lawyer to study what comes next.
"It clearly has an effect on the overall sense of safety at the school when there's this influence that creates anxiety and sometimes leads to actual physical confrontations," says Greg Knudsen, communications director for the Hawaii Department of Education.
Other educators explain the phenomenon as cyberbullying. But it doesn't mean they have any better handle on what to do, or even how to pinpoint it. From Judy Bowers' perspective as head of guidance and counseling for the Tucson Unified School District 1 and past-president of the American School Counselor Association, cyberbullying is an ongoing intention to pick on someone using electronic means, as opposed to snide remarks.
The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore., broadens the definition to include sending mean, vulgar or threatening messages or images; posting sensitive, private information about another person; pretending to be someone else to make that person look bad; and intentionally excluding someone from an online group. It goes on in e-mails, cell phone texts, Web pages, blogs and chat rooms, although students say using IM (Instant Message over e-mail) is the most popular method.
Alarmingly, 18 percent of students in grades 6 through 8 say they have been bullied in cyber space at least once in the last couple of months, points out Nancy Willard, executive director of CSRIU. In fact, 19 percent of regular Internet users between ages 10 percent and 17 report being involved in online aggression-15 percent were the bullies and 7 percent were targets. Three percent admitted they'd played both sides of the field. Girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators.
Justin W. Patchin, the assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Department of Political Science, began studying online harassment in 2002. "We basically found that the more proficient a student is in computers, the more likely he will be a victim or offender of cyberbullying," he notes.
"It's absolutely going on in this school," says Robyn Jackson, a former assistant principal (now administrator on leave) at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools in Bethesda, Md. "I don't think we realize how much because it's taking place offsite." Yet she still deals with spillover hostility in classrooms and hallways regardless of where it started.
"It's not something we can monitor in schools. I can stop a kid from passing a note. I can't stop kids from IMing each other at 2 a.m. Yet the school is still seen as the authority," she describes. "So we've had to question when it becomes necessary for us to get involved and where to draw the line to say this is a home matter. And that's a really thin, fine line.
"It's very hard to tell where, and what, actually is our responsibility to do," Jackson confesses.
The legal standard for school intervention in off-campus speech is that there must be a substantial and material disruption-or threat of one-at school, according to Willard. The problem is that the standard has never been applied in a legal discussion involving harmful student-vs.-student off-campus speech, which leaves a gray area administrators fear. Federal court decisions like the 1998 ruling that determined a student's rights were violated after Westlake School District administrators in Cleveland suspended him for creating a Web site mocking a teacher don't help. It cost that district $30,000 in a court settlement and an apology to the student.
The American Civil Liberties Union defended a Pennsylvania high school student who created a similar work about his principal. And the district ended up paying lawyer fees.
Law enforcement isn't in a position to rescue districts, unless it's a clear and severe threat. Even then, the police are ill equipped to deal with cyber-crime-all but the largest of metropolitan forces usually lack the proper investigative tools and training, Patchin says. "Often times the police are inundated dealing with cyber-stalking and identity theft," he explains.
Washington and Florida legislators are trying to cook up some laws that give current harassment statutes more teeth to include cyberbullying, but the wheels are turning slowly.
"The cases I'm familiar with resulted in civil lawsuits by the victims' parents and most are resolved prior to trial," Patchin says. But while laws would be nice, he puts little faith in them to address the real problem. "It won't deter these kids-it will persuade administrators to develop a policy that takes cyberbullying into consideration," he adds. The real answer, he advocates, lies in schools stepping up to teach kids right from wrong online, not because they're legally on the hook, "The biggest problem is that nobody is willing to take ownership," he explains. "Parents don't know what's going on and aren't familiar with the technology. Administrators are nervous about lawsuits. So it's slipping through the cracks."
Meanwhile, cyber attacks have the potential to cause more harm than the in-your-face version, Willard contends. According to Bowers, acceptance is still the name of the game: bullies and their cohorts get sucked in because they don't feel good about themselves and want to impress colleagues. They are detached from staring down the opponent, making the slings more vicious as technology spreads the poison farther. "When you're physically bullied, you're safe at home. Online bullying goes on 24/7," she notes.
And anonymity means many students can't identify their attacker, leaving them distrustful of everyone.
The process certainly has matured since the mid-'80s when ninth-grader Mark Franek once used his dad's Apple computer to create an endless-loop printout of crass statements about a classmate in York, Penn. But he had to physically distribute the fliers along school halls. He was caught and suspended. Franek is now dean of students at the private, prestigious William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where he is on a mission to nip cyberbullying in the bud.
William Penn has an explicit academic use policy stating the consequences of violating Internet use rules on property or at home, "but to be honest with you, it hasn't been tested yet in the courts," he admits. Administrators here are relying on the Supreme Court case ruling that says a principal can edit a school newspaper without violating free speech rights if the material is deemed to be disruptive to school.
But they put their trust in communication. Administrators mention rules in large assemblies and remind parents in letters and memos. Technology classes include role-playing and group discussions to explore how actions impact emotions.
In Tucson Unified School Systems, the 173 school counselors Bowers supervises teach students the consequences of cyber-bullying. Ron Teixeira, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Cyber Security Alliance, wants educators to wrap cyber ethics, safety and security lessons into one.
Pyle Middle School in Maryland uses guidance counselors to train students in how to deal with bullies as a victim and bystander. Jackson uses the school television show for skits and announcements on the topic, and schedule outside experts to speak with students. She enlists parents to help write the curriculum for cyberbullying lessons. "By the time a child is bullied and brings it to school, we're in triage and repair-and often the damage is almost irreparable," she says.
"But we still have to deal with IT on the other end," she adds. When cyber-bullying is found, if the incident hasn't disrupted school, they call in parents of the alleged bully to suggest family resources and skip disciplinary action. However, if students can't focus on work because they're too engrossed chatting about the latest on Myspace.com, for instance, offenders face detention or suspension with counseling.
"So they're not just sitting in detention hall, but spending that time reading law surrounding what can and can't be posted on the Internet," Jackson explains. "Or coming up with alternatives to the behaviors" when they were IMing.
Hawaii's cyber-bullying committee has gingerly begun exploring its options, emphasizing how to beef up language in its regulations to expand bullying to cover technology's tentacles. Knudsen can't predict the result. "As far as writing more rules, I'm not sure they need to do that," he says. "It's legitimate to raise the issue of: Are we fully enforcing what we already have?"
What they can't do, colleagues agree, is hide their heads in the sand. "I don't think it's peaked," says Franek. "We've only begun to see the ramification and misuse of technology. We used to drag the phones in a closet to get away from Mom and Dad. Now kids can connect to the world any time and there's no going back. It's a dynamic all schools in the country will have to deal with every year."
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.