State combats cyber-bullying

By Scott Unger Published:

Bullying in schools has been a concern for teachers, administrators and parents ever since big kids pushed and intimidated smaller ones on the playground or in an alley.

Now, technology has led to new types of bullying " and a legislative proposal to combat it.

Cyber-bullying is form of harassment that uses technology such as Web sites and cell phone text messaging to bully victims, often anonymously.

Cyber-bullying was in a national spotlight in March when a prank involving an impersonation on the friend-sharing Web site Myspace.com led to the suicide of a 13-year-old Missouri girl. Several people from the girl's school created a fake profile on the site and harassed her with messages from an imaginary boyfriend. The girl hanged herself in her bedroom when the "boyfriend" broke up with her.

Recently, Kentucky's General Assembly got involved. House Bill 91, nicknamed "The Golden Rule Act," was introduced in the House on Jan. 8.

It's aimed at traditional and cutting-edge bullying. It requires educators to report criminal harassment to law-enforcement authorities and has a provision that prohibits cyber-bullying. Nothing in the legislation specifies punishment such as fines or jail, but law enforcement already has means to deal with juveniles who misbehave.

Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, who said bullying has played a role in many violent incidents in schools, including shootings, introduced the bill.

"The education process is the most important thing," Cherry told the Bowling Green Daily News. "I would like to think, trying to pass this, that has raised the awareness level of educators and school systems around the state."

The bill passed the House 91-4 and the Senate 34-2 and now heads to Gov. Steve Beshear's desk.

Beshear's spokeswoman, Vicki Glass, said the governor supports the bill and plans to sign it. The bill would become law 90 days after it's signed. When it becomes law, Kentucky would become the 35th state with anti-bullying legislation.

Superintendents from Franklin County Public Schools and Frankfort Independent Schools agree the "Golden Rule' bill is a step in the right direction.

"We're in full support of anything that can eliminate bullying in schools," said county schools superintendent Harrie Lynne Buecker.

County schools recently held a bullying forum for parents at Elkhorn Middle School and Buecker said a similar program is planned at Franklin County High School.

"We try to look at ways to identify where bullying is taking place so we can wipe it out," Buecker said.

City schools Superintendent Dianne Cobb said bullying is addressed through various programs, including working with counselors and bringing in mentors from Frankfort High School.

"The programs are something we would be doing with or without legislation," Cobb said. "But this (bill) will probably move (the issue) to the forefront."

Both districts have staff assigned to monitor and prevent cyber-bullying.

FCPS Communications Coordinator Wayne Dominick said the schools don't allow students to access Web sites that lead to cyber-bullying, such as Myspace.com or Facebook.com.

"Most sites we try and block from kids having access," Dominick said.

Text messaging is a bigger problem because there is no way to monitor the activity, Dominick said.

Kentucky Center for Safe Schools Executive Director Jon Akers said camera capabilities on phones, combined with texting, often lead to problems in schools.

"What kids are doing with cell phones is just criminal," Akers said.

Several students were recently suspended at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina for taking pictures of exams with their camera phones and e-mailing the photos to friends, according to the Carrboro Citizen.

"It makes good sense to reconsider prohibiting cell phones from being on campus," Akers said.

FIS Chief Information Officer Tim Smith said most online bullying starts in the hallway.

Teachers report problems to Smith, who extracts e-mails and logs of Internet use by students.

"There's so much traffic that goes on (online), you can't really prevent everything, you can only stop it from escalating," Smith said.

Any student caught bullying online loses e-mail privileges taken away, Cobb said.

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