Ryan Patrick Halligan was bullied for months online. Classmates sent the 13-year-old Essex Junction, Vt., boy instant messages calling him gay. He was threatened, taunted, and insulted incessantly by so-called “cyber bullies.”
In 2003, Ryan killed himself.
“He just went into a deep spiral in eighth grade. He couldn’t shake this rumor,” said Ryan’s father, John Halligan, who became a key proponent of a state law that forced Vermont schools to put anti-bullying rules in place. He’s now pushing for a broader law to punish cyber bullying–often done at home after school–and wants every other state to enact laws expressly prohibiting it.
States from Oregon to Rhode Island are considering crackdowns to curb or outlaw the behavior, in which kids taunt or insult peers on social-networking web sites like MySpace or via instant messages. Still, there is some disagreement over how effective such crackdowns will be and how to enforce them.
“The kids are forcing our hands to do something legislatively,” said Rhode Island state Sen. John Tassoni, who introduced a bill to study cyber bullying and hopes to pass a cyber-bullying law by late 2007.
But others argue that legislation would be ineffective. George McDonough, an education coordinator with Rhode Island’s Department of Education, concedes that the internet has become an “instant slam book” but questions whether laws can stem bad behavior. “You can’t legislate norms; you can only teach norms,” he said.
The internet allows students to insult others in relative anonymity, and experts who study cyber bullying say it can be more damaging to victims than traditional forms of bullying, such as fist fights or classroom taunts.
Legislators and educators say there’s a need for guidelines outlining how to punish cyber bullying. They say the behavior has gone unchecked for years, with few laws or policies on the books explaining how to treat it.
Cyber bullying is often limited to online insults about someone’s physical appearance, friends, clothing, or sexuality. But some cyber bullies are more creative. In Washington state, a bully recently stole a girl’s instant-messaging user name and used it to send out insulting messages.
In New York, two high school boys were accused of operating an internet site that listed girls’ “sexual secrets.” Prosecutors decided not to charge the boys because of free-speech concerns.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it would be difficult to draft a cyber-bullying law that doesn’t infringe on free-speech rights.
“The fact that two teenagers say nasty things about each other is a part of growing up,” he said. “How much authority does a school have to monitor, regulate, and punish activities occurring inside a student’s home?”
In Arkansas, the state Senate passed a bill in February calling on school districts to set up policies to address cyber bullying–but only after the bill was amended to settle concerns about students’ free-speech rights.
States are taking different approaches to the problem.
A South Carolina law that took effect this year requires school districts to define bullying and outline policies and repercussions for the behavior, including cyber bullying. One school district in that state has proposed punishments ranging from warnings up to expulsion for both traditional bullying and cyber bullying.
Bullying–including harassment through eMail and text messages–soon will be outlawed in all public and accredited private schools in Iowa, after Iowa Gov. Chet Culver signed legislation March 5 requiring the state’s school districts to adopt stringent anti-bullying policies.
Iowa schools now will be required, by Sept. 1, to have procedures for reporting an act of bullying; to have procedures for collecting bullying incidence data; and to determine sanctions that can be enforced after incidents of bullying are confirmed.
The Iowa bill defines bullying as any conduct toward a student based on any actual trait, or perceived trait, that creates a hostile school environment meeting certain conditions–such as having a detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health or substantially interfering with his or her academic performance.
In Washington state, lawmakers are considering a bill reintroduced by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, that would require school harassment policies to prohibit cyber bullying. Kohl-Welles first introduced the bill in 2005, when it was passed by the state Senate but rejected by the House.
Under current state law, school districts are required to have policies prohibiting bullying–written, verbal, or physical acts that negatively affect a student or the school environment. Kohl-Welles’ bill would add electronic acts of bullying to that definition. Cyber bullying would not have to occur on school property, during school hours, or with school equipment to be covered by the measure, as long as it has an adverse effect on a student or school.
Her bill also would require schools to prohibit cyber bullying in their internet-use policies. Discipline for violations would be up to each school.
In Oregon, some of the state’s most powerful lawmakers have lined up behind a proposed bill that would require all of the state’s 198 school districts to adopt policies that prohibit cyber bullying.
Some local school districts aren’t waiting for the state to take action: The Sisters school district in central Oregon adopted rules that allow it to revoke cyber bullies’ school internet privileges, or even expel a student in egregious cases.
Ted Thonstad, superintendent of the rural school district of 1,475 students, said it was important to clarify by policy how to treat cyber bullying–now prohibited under strict school hazing rules. Previously, the district had guidelines for what types of internet sites students could visit, he said, but no policy specifically dealt with cyber bullying.
Thonstad said no case prompted the policy, although there were some minor incidents of cyber bullying before it went into place at the beginning of the school year. Nothing has been reported since then.
“It’s difficult to monitor if you don’t have the right software,” he said. “So you rely on students to let you know when it’s going on.”
Other schools also are being proactive. Rhode Island’s McDonough sent both public and private school superintendents information and resources on cyber bullying. One school is designing lesson plans to help stop cyber bullying and protect children from internet predators.
“I think it would be a good idea if there was a law, but I really believe it has to start at home,” said Patricia McCormick, assistant principal of the private St. Philip School in Smithfield, R.I.
McCormick said all the teachers in the school have been trained on internet safety, and students now receive at least 15 classes on the subject, which includes cyber bullying. But she said stopping the problem will require parental participation.
“Cyber bullying isn’t going on in school,” she said. “It is going on at home, and I think there needs to be more programs to educate parents about the dangers.”
News Corp.’s social-networking site MySpace.com prohibits cyber bullying and tells users to report abuse–to the company as well as parents and law-enforcement officials, according to a statement issued by Hemanshu Nigam, the company’s chief security officer.
John Halligan, whose son’s suicide has turned him into an advocate for broader cyber-bullying laws that would allow victims and their families to pursue civil penalties against bullies, said something must be done to stop the problem.
“I didn’t simply want it to be Ryan’s school that agreed to do something,” he said. “At the end of the day, this wasn’t just a problem in Ryan’s school.”