States Move to Protect Teachers from Cyberbullying

In December 2012, the first and only law in the nation that criminalizes cyberbullying of teachers by students went into effect in North Carolina. Under the “School Violence Prevention Act of 2012,” students are prohibited from intimidating or tormenting school employees online. Specific offenses often include building a fake profile or website, posting real or “doctored” images of school employees, or posting employees’ personal, private, or sexual information on the Internet – attacks that can ruin careers and even lives.

North Carolina English teacher Chip Douglas recently shared his story with National Public Radio about how his high school students laughed when they asked him offbeat questions in class. He later discovered one of his students created a Twitter account under his name, portraying him as a “drug addict,” a “violent person,” and “supersexual.” Though Douglas decided not to press charges he did leave the profession. Unfortunately, Douglas is not alone.

According to the 2010 National Survey of Violence Against Teachers, developed by a special task force of the American Psychological Association, 50% of 4,735 K-12 teachers were victimized by students, parents, or colleagues in the past year. Many of these attacks came in the form of cyberbullying. In addition to the obvious psychological harm, the costs of teacher victimization – which impact not only educators, but students, taxpayers and school systems as well – include lost wages, diminished classroom productivity, litigation, and negative publicity for the school.

Unfortunately, few states have cyberbullying laws on their books that actually include protections for school staff. Although North Carolina’s law remains by far the strongest in the nation, other states have been taking tougher look at the problem.

Passed by the Florida legislature in 2008, the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act” requires all school districts to adopt a policy prohibiting bullying and harassment of students and school employees at school and through school computers.

As Peter Caldwell, staff attorney for the Florida Education Association, explains, “(the law) only involved bullying at school in general, including bullying on school computers.”  A round of amendments that took effect on July 1, however, give schools the authority to reach beyond school grounds.

“The 2013 amendments addressed all kinds of cyberbullying, including cyberbullying from a non-school location,” Caldwell said.

Even though Utah does not yet have a law on the books as strong as North Carolina’s, educators in the state are working to improve the current law.

Utah’s law requires school districts to have a policy in place that prohibits bullying, retaliation and making false allegations; and requires training of school employees on bullying, cyberbullying, harassment and retaliation.

“It falls short of requiring local districts to adopt the state’s newly revised model policy that addresses bullying, cyberbullying, harassment and hazing for students and employees,” said Tracey Watson, Director of Legal Services and General Counsel at the Utah Education Association (UEA).

This new model policy, titled “Bullying, Cyberbullying, Harassment, and Hazing,” establishes a no tolerance rule for bullying, harassment and hazing by schools that adopt it. This policy allows school officials to discipline students for “off-campus speech that causes or threatens a substantial disruption on campus,” including school activities, on-campus violence, or interference with a student’s performance in school. Students who violate this policy can be suspended or expelled from school.

“[In addition] Utah’s law does not really have a civil penalty for its violation,” said Watson. ”Rather, any specific penalty would have to be defined in school policy. The current version of our law only preserves the right to sue bullying perpetrators in a civil action.”

“While districts have been proactive about implementing policies, each district has a different one. There has yet to be a state standard,” said Jay Blaine, director of policy and research for UEA. While there has been support from superintendents and continued open communication between local school districts and UEA’s team, school districts have yet to adopt the new model policy.

“Our advocates and teams have worked hard to try to get local districts to adopt the state’s model policy, but our success has been slow,” said Watson.