Rhode Island act prevents cyber bullying, not social media access

Rep. Ruggiero penned the Safe Schools Act after a bullying-provoked suicide occurred in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island’s recently-approved “Safe School Act,” created in response to online bullying, seeks to standardize school responses to online bullying issues. And despite some media reports decrying the bill’s apparent ban of all social media at all times, the bill’s author clarifies that social media use is, in fact, encouraged for educational purposes.

The act defines cyber bullying as bullying through the use of technology or electronic communication, including eMail, instant messages, impersonating another person as the author of posted content, as well as a variety of other internet communications.

The Safe Schools Act is meant to provide a statewide policy of disciplinary actions in response to online bullying, including the prompt notification of parents of both the victim and the bully. The new law also protects students who anonymously report bullying.

Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, wrote an opinion article in the Huffington Post criticizing the bill.

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“…the Rhode Island legislature passed HB 5941, an ‘anti-bullying’ measure that, among its other provisions, imposes a blanket ban on the use of ‘social networking sites’ (whatever those are, post-Web 2.0) on school grounds,” wrote Goldstein. “Because as everyone knows, anyone who encounters another user on a website is immediately bullied into submission. Right?”

A reading of the bill, which details provisions for preventing online bullying both on and off school grounds, reveals one bullet point that reads: “Students shall be prohibited from accessing social networking sites at school, except for educational or instructional purposes and with the prior approval from school administration.”

Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications with Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that Commissioner Deborah Gist supported the legislation throughout its process.

“We have very good cyber bullying policies, but this legislation now puts that into law, requiring a statewide policy, which we will draft and develop, which will incorporate the best elements from the current policies that are currently in place in other districts,” Krieger said.

Krieger denied Goldstein’s charge that the bill would ban social media.

“Obviously [he] didn’t read the legislation. It allows social media to be used appropriately for instructional and educational purposes,” Krieger said.

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Rhode Island Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, who authored the bill, said that Goldstein’s assertion that the act would prevent students from accessing sites such as The Huffington Post or the Rhode Island legislature’s Facebook page is off base.

“That’s not part of the bill in terms of limiting social media. What it means, though, is bullying has changed dramatically in the past several years because of social media,” Ruggiero said. “Years ago when the bell rang, you left the bullying in the school yard. Today that bully follows you home with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and instant messaging, so it’s 24/7.” She added that one of the reasons she chose to author the bill was the suicide of Jeffrey Michaelnka, a 16-year-old Rhode Island student.

“He was bullied to the point of suicide,” she said, terming the cause of death “bullycide.” “No parent should bury a child, and certainly not because of bullycide.”

Ruggiero cited a 2010 Rhode Island study that found that 43 percent of students polled said they were bullied in school, while about 60 percent were unsure whether they had been bullied.

“Every single student should feel safe in school. … State law says that children have to go to school, but they have the right to a safe, secure learning environment, and that’s why I wanted to make sure that every student felt safe,” Ruggiero said.

Suspension from school will not be listed as a punishment for cyber bullies, however.

“What happens when you suspend a student? What to do they do? They go home, they get on the computer, and they start blogging. So the last thing you want to do is that,” Ruggiero said.

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