State Mandates Cyberbullying Prevention in Schools

Posted on 20 July 2012

By Amanda Wyatt

You often hear about it on the nightly news and read about it in magazines. Maybe you’ve heard stories about it from your teenage grandson or your preteen daughter. And if you’re under the age of 25, you may have even suffered from it yourself.

It’s called cyberbullying — the use of electronic devices or computers to harass another — and it has reared its vicious head in every corner of the country … even on the East End.

However, new legislation recently passed by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and co-sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. may be a step forward in helping to combat cyberbullying both locally and across the state.

“It is more than apparent that bullying has become a substantial problem in schools with the new technology of the Internet,” said Thiele when interviewed about the need for the new law.

Signed on July 9, the legislation requires school faculty and staff to take swift action when they learn a student is being cyberbullied or harassed. It also calls for schools to develop protocols to contend with bullying and set up training requirements for school faculty, staff and administration on how to prevent and deal with cyberbullying and other forms of harassment.

Thiele, who previously served as the ranking member on New York State’s education committee, has also sponsored his own anti-cyberbullying legislation in the past. Since he is in close contact with superintendents at the 21 school districts he represents, Thiele said he is acutely aware of the dangers of this form of bullying.

“We’ve all seen some of the worst examples reported in the media, but we haven’t had one of those kinds of incidents that has resulted in violence or death here,” he said. “But there’s no region nor type of school district that’s immune to cyberbullying.”

According to Thiele, the new law requires each school district to develop its own unique plan of action based on the needs of the community it serves. For example, a Manhattan school district would have very different needs from the Sag Harbor School District.

“What we’re trying to do here is set general requirements for school districts to have a plan. I think given the width and the breadth of the different types of communities that you have in New York State, the strength of the legislation is allowing them to adapt these general rules to a plan that fits the schools’ individual needs,” Thiele said.

Although the law will not take effect until July 1, 2013, both the Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton school districts already have a number of anti-cyberbullying programs in place, according to school administrations.

Bridgehampton School Principal Jack Pryor did not believe that cyberbullying was particularly widespread in his district, but it has had an impact.

Pryor said Bridgehampton School has taken a number of anti-bullying measures, from role-playing bullying situations to partnering students with faculty mentors.

“Anti-bullying is a safety issue, in my mind,” he said. “And it’s something you have to practice, just like you practice fire drills.”

One of the school’s most effective initiatives, he said, was bringing in law enforcement to talk to students.

“When Suffolk County police officers came to talk about how they track down cyberbullying, I really think it was an eye opener for the kids,” he said. “The officers were able to get right into some Facebook pages, and what kids are saying on Facebook sometimes can be pretty brutal.”

The Sag Harbor School District has also experienced its share of cyberbullying in recent years, and the administration has attempted to curb some of the bullying through its own initiatives.

“We have a lot of anti-bullying programs, especially at the middle school level, and we evaluate them every year as to whether or not we need to add anything,” said Principal Jeff Nichols of Pierson Middle/High School.

Although Nichols said at Pierson, staff tries to mediate cyberbullying, he admitted their efforts are sometimes not enough.

“Often we’ll say to the parents [of bullied children] that if it doesn’t stop despite our efforts, please contact the police,” said Nichols.

While bullying has always been harmful, cyberbullying has been particularly brutal for children. Today, bullies are able to harass their targets through not only text messages and emails, but Facebook, Twitter and other websites. Because the Internet allows bullies to hide under the cloak of anonymity, children often don’t know exactly who is bullying them.

Recent research has shown a correlation between cyberbullying and low self-esteem, academic problems, family problems, school violence, substance abuse and delinquency. In addition, victims of cyberbullying often experience an increase in depression, anxiety and anger.

Dr. Robert Stein, a child psychologist and member of the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees, said this week that he has treated a number of local children who have been severely bullied.

Because of the anonymous nature of cyberbullying, he explained, its victims can feel “helpless.”

“There’s a paranoid element to it,” Dr. Stein said. “Is this going to happen? When is it going to happen? Who do I trust? How do I stop it? And you just don’t know, because [the bullying is] indirect.”

“So when it really gets bad, these kids close off more and more. Some of these kids separate themselves and become very withdrawn and very angry and depressed,” he added. “Often, they don’t get the kind of peer support that they need.”

Dr. Stein said the new legislation, which holds school staff more accountable for reporting cyberbullying, “is definitely helpful because it takes away from the kid having to be responsible.”

Despite that, Dr. Stein said involving children and teens directly in abating bullying behavior is the most effective solution.

“Ultimately, what’s most helpful in these situations, in my opinion, are peer tribunals and courts,” he said.

In any event, involving school personnel in addressing and handling cyberbullying is crucial. As Principal Pryor noted, the problem “is everywhere.”

“If any district thinks that they don’t have a bullying problem, they’re just fooling themselves,” he said. “Bullies are here – they’re in every school. Sometimes bullying is almost invisible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Pryor added school districts should not feel “ashamed” of having a bullying problem.

“You just need to know that it’s there,” he said. “If you don’t address it, it’s not going to get fixed, it’s not going to go away, and someone is going to get hurt.”

Photography by Michael Heller.

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