Cheers: Florida schools now empowered to fight cyberbullying

July 9, 2013 

Parents, warn your children yet again. Cyberbullying can now be punished in another way. A new Florida law allows school districts to discipline students who harass others even when this originates on an Internet device off school grounds.

Youngsters must be forewarned about not just inappropriate behavior but criminal harassment that sometimes results in deadly repercussions. Teenagers have committed suicide over loathsome online attacks, whether in words or images.

Parents have a responsibility to counsel their children about bullying -- on both sides of the issue, and most certainly to learn if their youngster has become a victim.

School administrators no longer have to worry about whether or not cyberbullying originated off campus. As of last week, principals and other school officials can punish perpetrators for interfering with education no matter where it originates.

The new law requires school boards to adopt policies that cover both students and district personnel, even sent from nonschool online sources -- "if the bullying substantially interferes with or limits the victim's ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or opportunities offered by a school or substantially disrupts the education process or orderly operation of a school."

Defining cyberbulling

The law defines cyberbulling as systematically and chronically inflicting physical or psychological distress through teasing, social exclusion, threats, intimidation, stalking, humiliation, and sexual, religious or racial harassment.

Provisions cover the broad spectrum of technological devices and electronic communications. Youngsters cannot abuse Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to send hateful and dehumanizing posts.

While First Amendment advocates might object to such far-reaching language, the expanded school district authority is critical to suicide prevention and the mental health of children. There's a fine line between freedom of speech and criminal behavior, and nobody should be immune from the consequences of what amounts to assault. We encourage school administrators to be tough on this insidious conduct.

Before the Legislature approved this measure, Bradenton state Sen. Bill Galvano told the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau:

"In many ways, (cyber-bullying) is the worst kind of bullying because it has a permanency to it. Once something is in the ether of the Internet, it's not easy to retrieve, and often impossible to retrieve."

And that strikes at the heart of the matter. A verbal attack dissipates immediately, but not one on the Internet.

Parents should be very concerned. Numerous studies show that bullying is directly linked to poorer academic achievement, learning and development.

Bullied children are also more likely to have higher levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness -- and thoughts of suicide. And victims are likely to keep bullying a secret.

Talk to your children. Don't be a passive parent.

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An online link to "CS/CS/HB 609 -- Bullying in the Public School System" can be found in the online version of this editorial.

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