“Cyber bullying,” in which students use the internet to send cruel messages or post anonymous rumors about their peers, is a growing problem for schools nationwide. Now, some Southern California parents are fighting back against the practice, meeting with school officials and others in hopes that a web site where students anonymously post gossip about other students might be shut down.

Internet users of schoolscandals.com—one of many web sites where cyber bullying occurs—can find links to chat rooms for nearly 100 Southern California middle and high schools. The site, which includes chat rooms for private and religious schools, claims 31,400 registered users.

While the postings might hurt feelings, they are not illegal, said Ken Tennen, an attorney who represents the web site owners. He described the site as a nonprofit, opinion-based message board that is operated by students.

“People really don’t understand that a bulletin board system like schoolscandals.com exposes into the light of day the way that kids actually talk to each other, whether it is on the playground, in the locker room, on the sports field, or hanging around the mall,” Tennen told the Los Angeles Times.

He said the site’s owners, whom he declined to identify by name, are Nevada investors operating under the name Western Applications. The 3-year-old company plans to expand nationwide, Tennen said.

Parents in the San Fernando Valley began complaining about the web site three months ago. They met recently with administrators from Las Virgenes Unified School District, who agreed to block the site on school computers.

One mother, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her son, said she is organizing parents to sue the web site owners, the Times said. She said her son is in counseling because of his embarrassment over a message posted about him on the site.

“That kid who said that awful thing is just a stupid adolescent. But who is allowing him to do it? All of the adults,” she said.

Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists, said the web postings amounted to cyber bullying, which could inflict serious emotional damage to teenagers.

Students have been picking on each other for years, but the internet offers a new and some say even more destructive way to do so. Now, with the help of the internet, rumors can spread across a school—and beyond—in a matter of hours.

Although most cyber bullying occurs outside of school, educators say they’re spending more and more time dealing with the fallout as it creeps into the classroom.

Parents and school leaders might face an uphill battle in trying to curb the practice legally, experts warn.

Messages such as a student is “ugly” are not grounds for legal action, said Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center. He said thousands of sites similar to schoolscandals.com operate nationwide.

But authors of some postings could be held liable for their words, even if a 1996 federal law protects many internet service providers from lawsuits about their content, according to Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization.

Only sites that hold the right to edit their content, such as newspaper web sites, can be sued for defamation, Seltzer said.

Meanwhile, schools can help fight cyber bullying by holding classes for parents, making them aware of what their kids might be doing on their home computers, experts advise.

Another suggestion: Hold workshops where victims of cyber bullying can talk about their experience. That might help kids understand how destructive their anonymous postings can be.

“People think it’s fun, it’s funny,” one parent told the Ventura County Star. “But if they knew there was a consequence, maybe they wouldn’t do it.”

Links:

National Association of School Psychologists
http://www.nasponline.org

Student Press Law Center
http://www.splc.org

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org