CA Legislation Criminalizes Campus Cyberbullying
The California state legislature has just passed one of the first laws in the country to deal directly with cyberbullying. It gives school administrators the authority to discipline studies for bullying others offline or online. But will legislation translate into enforcement?
The legislation, Assembly Bill 86, started two years ago dedicated to nutritional literacy, but over time it evolved from a series of amendments into a bill to address a number of disciplinary issues, including cyberbullying, which it defines as
one or more acts by a pupil or a group of pupils directed against another pupil that constitutes sexual harassment, hate violence, or severe or pervasive intentional harassment, threats, or intimidation that is disruptive, causes disorder, and invades the rights of others by creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment, and includes acts that are committed personally or by means of an electronic act, as defined.
Specifically, the bill would give principals the ability to suspend students or recommend them for expulsion if they determine that bullying indeed took place. It’s particularly notable that the bill gives equal treatment to traditional bullying as well as cyberbullying, which is defined as “the transmission of a communication, including, but not limited to, a message, text, sound, or image by means of an electronic device, including, but not limited to, a telephone, wireless telephone or other wireless communication device, computer, or pager.” (Video isn’t named explicitly, but it’s undoubtedly covered by the inclusion of sound and images.)
Passing the state assembly 52 to 22 and the senate 21 to 12 two weeks ago, the bill is also careful to address the thorny issue of jurisdictional boundaries. There have been numerous cases over the years in which schools have tried and failed to go after students for activities that have taken place off-campus, so legislators drew the lines very closely to the schoolhouse gate:
A pupil shall not be suspended or expelled for any of the acts enumerated in this section, unless that act is related to school
activity or school attendance occurring within a school under the
jurisdiction of the superintendent of the school district or
principal or occurring within any other school district.
The bill makes it clear that principals can address bullying that takes place in four circumstances: on school grounds; while students are going to or coming from school; during lunch period, even if off campus; and off-campus school-sponsored events, including the travel time to and from that event. While this may seem like unnecessary details to some, it’s a smart move, because it leaves little doubt over jurisdictional boundaries. It doesn’t address bullying that takes place totally off-campus, such as online at home, but if it did, someone would likely find grounds to challenge it in court.
Once enacted, principals will have a new tool to deal with bullying on campus. But it makes me wonder exactly how necessary it is; it’s not like school officials were previously completely hamstrung when it came to taking action against bullying. If there was compelling evidence in a particular case, a school official could have easily taken action.
Even if one argues that the bill is necessary - and one could make a very strong case, in the wake of the Megan Meier controversy - I still wonder what will have in practice, once the bill fully becomes law. Will this be a case where bullying has simply been criminalized on paper, or will principals actively enforce it? -andy