Guest Blogger Shawn Edgington on Cyberbullying and the US Supreme Court

As the US Supreme Court recently decided not to hear two cases related to cyberbullying, failing to recognize the power of social networking. For now,  the problem of online harassment continues to plague America’s students.

The Supreme Court passed on hearing the appealed case from West Virginia involving a web page gone viral among students that disparaged another student by spreading rumors that she had a sexually transmitted disease.  The student from West Virginia sued her school after she was suspended for creating the page, called “S.A.S.H.” The student stated the term S.A.S.H. stood for “Students Against Sluts’ Herpes.”

In the lower courts, the students of this profile page argued that their online posts were off-limits to school authorities because they took place “off-campus.”  The original creator of the webpage was suspended by the school, and the parents sued the school district, lost, and then took the case to the Supreme Court, who passed on formally hearing the case.

The second appealed case came out of a school district in Pennsylvania that was successfully sued by two students who were suspended for slandering their principals while they were off of school campus.  One eighth-grade girl created a fake profile of her principal that included a photo, calling him a “sex addict” who enjoyed “hitting on students.” The other, a high school senior, mocked his principal as a drug user and a “big fag.”  The students were originally suspended for their actions, and they sued the school district and won.  The court stayed out of the ruling that said schools couldn’t discipline the two students because the slander took place off-campus and didn’t disrupt the education process.

As the court underestimates the power of social networking by “passing” on these two cases, cyberbullying continues to grow momentum.  For now, cyberbullying is a problem that the Supreme Court is leaving to the individual states and schools.  The National School Board Association was disappointed by the courts inactions, “We've missed the opportunity to really clarify for school districts what their responsibility and authority is," said Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association. "This is one of those cases where the law is simply lagging behind the times."

The law might be lagging but cyberbullying is growing at a rapid rate, mostly due to the influence of mobile messaging and the easy access of social media. It’s become convenient for anyone to bully more often, and with ease.

If any kind of bullying occurs while a student’s at school or on their way to or from school, then administrators can step in if the actions are negatively affecting the education process.  If bullying occurs outside of school, it’s up to the parents or students to report it.  As the law stands today, bullying must “disrupt the education process” in order for a school to have legal grounds to step in, including investigation and punishing students for cyberbullying incidents.

In the extreme cyberbullying cases that hit the media and from my personal experience, online abuse often stems from a crowd mentality; viral mayhem that is simple to achieve on any social network.  The fact is, it’s much easier to spread rumors or agree with hate-speech when you don’t have to face the target directly, which is why technology takes bullying to a whole new level. Kids have to understand that there has to be consequences for their actions, and parents need to deliver the consequences, even if their school can’t.

Are we doing enough to limit the damage that cyberbullying causes?  Are we educating all students on how to prevent or intervene on behalf of a student peer?  A study released today from the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), sponsored by Microsoft Corp., finds that schools are ill-prepared to teach students the basics of online safety, security and ethics — skills that are necessary in today’s digital world. The study claims that only 26 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed have taught kids how to handle cyberbullying, versus 15 percent who have spoken to students about hate speech online.

Teachers should help students understand that social networks are not separate from reality. A Facebook page or a Twitter account is an extension of it, and part of a child’s image and reputation, both online and in real life. It should also be made clear that everything digital is governed by a set of social rules, even though the Supreme Court decided not to clarify the grounds in which students can be punished by public schools for their off-campus digital activities.

There is one thing that I know for sure; parents need to be attentive to their child’s contacts and activities on all forms of social media, and our schools need to be proactive when it comes to cyberbullying prevention and intervention, even if for now, the high court underestimates the power of social networking.

Shawn Edgington is the Founder and President of the Great American NO BULL Challenge and the bestselling author of The Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook and Social Media:  Understanding the Benefits and Dangers of Parenting in a Digital World. Shawn is also the CEO of a national insurance firm in California where she lives with her family.