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Who Will Rescue Our Kids From Bullies?

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The suicide of the talented young musician, a student at Rutgers, has shocked people everywhere, and the two students who are alleged to have posted an intimate video for all to see have been arrested. Up for debate is the nature of their offense. Was it a hate crime? Sexual harassment? Cyberbullying?

And what is an institution's responsibility?

These are not new questions, unfortunately. Earlier this year a young high school student in Massachusetts hung herself after prolonged verbal abuse and harassment by her fellow students, who called her a slut and worse.

In late June Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter's principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn't want to involve the police, and they knew the boy's parents socially. The principal's response was cut and dried: "This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can't discipline him."

At first I thought that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response -- until I read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That's horrifying, but it's the reality.

My takeaway, however, is not that schools and their leadership cannot split hairs and decline to get involved. It's their job, like it or not. How they respond matters, and the key is to be pro-active, not wait until something awful happens. The good news, as I will explain, is that the law is on their side.

First consider how non-public schools function. Most have a code of conduct, one that their students must accept. So if a student from Andover, St. Joseph's or Pencey Prep does something on a weekend that is an egregious violation of the behavior code and is caught, that student would suffer the consequences. No way the school head could drop that "not my responsibility" line and get away with it.

And parents and students at these schools are made aware of the rules, which are spelled out in detail. As Patrick Bassett, the head of the National Association of Independent Schools, notes, "Parents and students are often required to sign a document indicating that they have read and agree to the expectations as specified in the Student Handbook."

Bassett says public schools can copy this approach. "Any school, public or private, can make character a core element of its standards and program. Any school that doesn't do that fails to educate the whole child. The 3 Rs of the academic curriculum ('reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic) must be accompanied by the 3 Rs of the character curriculum, (respect, responsibility, relationships)."

The key point here is that schools embrace values. And having values is generally a 24/7 proposition. As the old chestnut goes, you cannot work in a whorehouse on weekends without consequences for the weekdays.

Parents -- and perhaps the kid -- chose their non public school with their eyes open. Often they are choosing a school because of its values. And, of course, some public schools -- think KIPP and other charter schools -- have a code of conduct that all are expected to adhere to.

But schools don't need a student handbook or a code of conduct to take action against bullying, including cyberbullying. The law is on their side. In fact, they may HAVE to act or be in violation themselves.

Nancy Willard, the attorney cited in the NY Times article about the Massachusetts case, argues that if off-campus behavior, including on-line behavior, "has or reasonably could cause a substantial disruption at school or interference with students rights to be secure," then educators have the authority they need.

She adds, "These cyberbullying incidents combine online and off-line altercations -- and sometimes they turn violent or they result in school failure. Thus, reasonable adults could come to no other conclusion that school officials must be able to respond."

Bernice Sandler, one of the forces behind Title IX, takes a tougher line. The federal law known Title IX (1972) prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category. "Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called "sluts" and "hos," boys are called "fags' and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent."

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs. "This federal law also prohibits these behaviors outside the school, as when personal computers are used, and when the behavior is disruptive to learning, such as affecting a student's ability to partake of the opportunities for learning in school as well as partaking in other school opportunities provided by the school. Schools have an obligation to stop sexual bullying when it occurs and to have a policy that prohibits it."

Jean Alberti says it's time for speaking the truth. Cyberbullying and other forms of bullying are nothing less than child abuse. "Change the label," she says. "The behaviors that constitute bullying -- pushing, shoving, hitting, stealing possessions, taunting, teasing, ridiculing, spreading lies or rumors -- if done by an adult would be labeled physical or emotional abuse. These would constitute a crime and would be prosecuted."

Why a double standard, she wants to know? "By not punishing bullying abuse, by not conveying that this is unacceptable behavior, children are learning that it is acceptable. As adults, they continue to bully others -- at home and in the workplace -- and the problem multiplies exponentially."

If bullying is really a form of abuse and if values matter, why not build schools around the concept of choice and variety? That would mean embracing the true mission of education, going beyond 8AM-3PM, test scores, athletics and college admissions.

What if a district embraced differences and variety and choice, but at the same time insisted that each school develop its own code of conduct, of acceptable behaviors?

Publish the choices and the code of ethics/behavior, and let families make informed choices.

Me, I would put 'safety,' particularly emotional and intellectual safety, at the top of the list of priorities.

What also should be publicized is the reach of Title IX. Dr. Sandler concludes optimistically. "I strongly believe that most educators want to stop cyberbullying, but many do not know what to do. Title IX has made a huge difference in sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination at many schools at all levels. It can make a difference in cyberbullying too, if educators knew about it."

I devote a long chapter of Below C Level, my new book, to the issue of school safety. The horror stories are there, of course, because it's important that readers understand just how pervasive bullying and cyberbullying are. We don't have the luxury of standing on the sidelines on this one, not parents and not school people either.

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John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.