Laying down the law on bullying and cyberbullying

This Q&A will get you up to speed on your district's legal responsibilities

Q: How does a district meet the requirements of its state legislation?

A: Many state agencies or state Department of Education offices have developed “model” policies districts can adopt. Districts can also work with content providers who specialize in bullying- and cyberbullying-prevention programs. These providers can help create a comprehensive program complete with staff training, reporting mechanisms, recurring reminders to complete state-mandated tasks such as creating an annual report, and communication materials to promote the policy internally.

Q: Do states enforce their bullying/cyberbullying mandates? If so, how?

A: School districts are required to respond to bullying incidents, but they are not subject to so-called “inspections” or “audits” such as with occupational safety and health requirements. However, some states do require districts to submit their policies and procedures to the state Department of Education.

The bottom line is it is a district’s responsibility to keep their students safe. Many districts will go above and beyond state law to help keep their students safe from bullying and harassment because they know the short- and long-term effects of bullying. At the end of the day, districts want their students to be safe and, if that does not happen, they will be held accountable.

Q: Let’s say bullying or cyberbullying occurs off campus. Can districts still enforce their policy regarding the consequences for such behavior?

A: There have been many court cases that show schools do have the authority to reasonably discipline students for any behavior at school or away from school if it results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in, a substantial or material disruption at school or if the behavior infringes on the rights of other students.

However, administration can only do this if an incident is reported. It is extremely important that students, families, and staff report bullying incidents—even when they take place off of schools grounds or outside of school hours—so that administration can intervene.

Q: Is there any new legislation in the works?

A: There is always new legislation being written or amendments to existing laws being proposed. Most recently, I’ve noticed more and more states are including cyberbullying in their amendments. Social media is such a big part of today’s society so it makes sense that cyberbullying is being specifically addressed. For example, Texas added the term “cyberbullying” to the Texas Education Code under the bullying section in 2011. However, this did not create any legal punishment for cyberbullying. Instead, it just required districts to develop policies to prevent it. Enacted in 2017, Texas’ David’s Law amended the Texas Education Code to include cyberbullying as a criminal offense.

In general, bullying laws are now including cyberbullying, as well as requirements around training and reporting mechanisms, sometimes even anonymous reporting mechanisms.

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