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If a child is being cyber-bullied at school, it is natural and very understandable for parents to think that school administrators and teachers can step in, discipline the bully, and put an end to this problem. Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Schools, in spite of their noble intentions, often stand on the sidelines and watch helplessly as kids get cyber-bullied by classmates or school mates. In fact, even teachers and principals are being cyber-bullied by some kids. In some cases, teachers and principals have sued and lost. Several court cases show that the hands of administrators and teachers are tied when it comes to disciplining cyber-bullies. Result? Litigation and legislation are evolving as society finds a way to address this growing problem.  

In Pennsylvania, a student was suspended for 10 days for posting derogatory remarks about his principal on MySpace. The school took disciplinary action against the student. The parents sued and a lower court ruled that the school violated the student’s free speech rights. The case is under appeal in Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In New Jersey, a student created a website that criticized the school and its teachers. The school took disciplinary action by suspending the student. The parents sued and the school district settled. In another case, another school district settled when a student who was expelled for posting threatening rap songs online sued and won. In all three cases, the school lost because it was found to have violated the student's First Amendment rights.  

Schools are between a rock and a hard, hard place. Legislation on cyber-bullying is still in its formative stages and there is no one guaranteed successful method to deal with cyber-bullying. Each case of cyber-bullying has some unique aspects to it, making it thereby difficult to embrace a cookie-cutter approach to discipline. Further, many schools still do not have clear cut policies and procedures on cyber-bullying. Teachers are not always familiar with the arsenal available to cyber-bullies and sometimes are themselves the subject of cyber-bullies. Schools face a serious dilemma: If they ignore cyber-bullying in their schools, they could be sued for negligence. If they take action, they could be sued for violation of First Amendment rights. Many states such as Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Washington are now mandating public schools to have clear policies on cyber-bullying.  

“The position that we have consistently taken is that speech that takes place at home is outside of the purview of the schools. They simply cannot punish for speech at home,” says Kim Watterson, a First Amendment and appeals lawyer at Reed Smith who has won four cyber-bullying lawsuits in recent years on behalf of students and was recently quoted in the National Law Journal. In other words, a school district assumes the burden of showing unequivocal proof that cyber-bullying had a negative impact on the educational experience of a student and prevented him or her from learning or attending school. In the absence of such proof, the school has no control over what a child does at home on the Internet, even if it is abusive, threatening, and downright indecent.  

This is an important message for parents to know and understand. If you think you will turn to your school administrator or your child's teacher for help, you may be disappointed in what they can do for your child or for a concerned parent. So it becomes even more important for parents to take an active role in monitoring the activities of their child on the Internet and to be prepared to take action on their own if their child is being cyber-bullied.


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