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At Cyberbullying Conference, Experts and Educators Try to Define Line Between Texting and Trouble

John Mooney | April 25, 2013

Is it just a snarky Facebook comment, or one sign of a problem that ultimately makes it impossible to learn in school?

Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa addressing cyberbullying conference at Rutgers-Newark.
Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa addressing cyberbullying conference at Rutgers-Newark.

One of the most vexing legal questions raised by New Jersey’s two-year-old anti-bullying law remains how to address incidents that occur online and off school grounds -- including nights and weekends.

Cyberbullying was the focus of a daylong conference yesterday at Rutgers University in Newark, where lawyers, scholars, educators, and others discussed the difficulties of drawing a legal line that determines if schools -- or parents -- are culpable.

Enacted in 2011, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights states that schools must investigate incidents of online bullying if they disrupt or disturb the educational environment .

In the first year of the law, more than 12,000 reported cases of bullying were investigated -- a 50 percent increase from the year before -- with more than 1,000 taking place via smartphone, computer, or other electronic device.

But it isn’t always easy to make a direct connection between a Facebook posting or an insulting text and what happens in schools, according to state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who said the state continues to grapple with how to define cyberbullying

Some cases are easier than others, Chiesa. Exhibit A in New Jersey remains Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers students who was unknowingly recorded in an intimate encounter and saw the video distributed over the Internet. Clementi later killed himself.

“When you go to the realm of gossip, though, then I am lost,” Chiesa said during the keynote speech held at Rutgers Law School and hosted by the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.

“Where do you go from a speech issue to where you crossed the line?” Chiesa said. “Where is the line to where government has a role when certain kinds of behaviors should be penalized?”

The idea of there being a defined line was repeatedly mentioned by Chiesa, and others.

“You want policies that will protect children, but also will survive the [legal] scrutiny that it will inevitably be exposed to,” he said. “Wherever you place a line, someone is going to say it’s in the wrong spot.”

These were words that stuck with the primary sponsor of the anti-bullying law who was sitting in the audience, saying afterward that the law has proven a valuable tool but there may be ways to strengthen it.

“If the attorney general has questions, obviously it’s a difficult challenge,” said state Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen).

Another member of the audience asked about parent’s culpability. Chiesa said parents bear a great deal of the burden by setting their own rules and standards, and typically by providing the electronic devices. And that could prove to be a legal burden.

“Lawyers can be creative, and working their way to the parents wouldn’t be too hard,” he said.

Still, the legal precedents are thus far limited, and schools are sometimes left to determine those lines on their own. One legal expert said yesterday that New Jersey does better than most at addressing cyberbullying among schoolchildren.

“I think New Jersey is on the right track,” said Elizabeth Jaffe, an associate professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School who has studied New Jersey’s anti-bullying law. “Nobody can jump in and get it right perfectly. It will take time to see how it plays out.”

Jaffe, also a panelist at the event, said afterward that questions arise as to whether the law is too vague and gives districts too much leeway in deciding what is cyberbullying.

“Is it too vague, is just saying ‘I don’t like your clothes’ amount to bullying,” she said. “You need to ask how pervasive it is, what is the extent of it.”

A state task force charged with monitoring the law and its implementation continues to grapple with the topic as well, with the one member who works in a school district saying he sees the ramifications on a regular basis.

Joseph Ricca, superintendent of East Hanover School District, said in a separate interview last night that he has had a parent hand him a stack of printouts from a Facebook account that shows her child’s interactions online.

Or he himself has listened to the sometimes troubling dialogue in online gaming. “The things that are being said are just chilling,” he said.

“The law hasn’t changed that as much, as all of this happened before, but it has helped in clarifying the case of something said online that maybe happened the night before. If that spills over into school the next day, there could be consequences,” Ricca said.

But he said the law will have fallen short if it is just about meting out penalties on students without educating them -- and their parents.

“When you talk about any law and in this case the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, it has to be about partnerships between the schools, the children, and the parents in order to limit this kind of things from happening in the first place,” Ricca said.

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