Remember those carefree school days when bullies' abilities were limited to taunts and beating people up?
Those low-tech options now compete with "cyber-bullying"—which can include anything from sending threatening text messages or emails to taking embarrassing locker-room photos with a camera phone to creating cruel websites about a classmate.
And that's caught the attention of powerful Oregon legislators such as House Majority Leader Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone). He's sponsoring HB 2637, which would mandate that all Oregon schools adopt a policy aimed at curbing electronic bullying.
Nobody has numbers that highlight how prevalent the problem is in Oregon. But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 30 percent of students nationwide from grades six through eight have been on the receiving or giving end of cyber-bullying. And about one-third of kids ages 12-17 have experienced it as well, according to a national poll released last August by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a law-enforcement group based in Washington, D.C.
At least two other states—Idaho and South Carolina—have adopted statewide anti-cyber-bullying policies, including punishments as severe as expulsion. Oregon is one of eight states considering similar legislation.
Hunt says his bill is designed to "catch up state law and district policy regulations with the 21st century" by giving Oregon's 198 public-school districts until July to update their policies. Otherwise, the state could withhold funds for noncompliance.
The Oregon Education Association supports the bill, but critics worry that school administrators could use cyber-bullying policies to suppress electronically expressed student criticism of school policy, under the banner of avoiding "a hostile educational environment."
What, for example, would a policy do if a Portland high-school student decided to blog about what an idiot her classmate is for testifying at a school board meeting in support of Superintendent Vicki Phillips?
Oregon ACLU Executive Director David Fidanque says existing anti-bullying statutes passed by the Legislature in 2001 that require each public-school district to have an anti-bullying policy are fine. (Portland Public Schools does a have a policy addressing bullying in general, but is silent on cyber-bullying.) Fidanque is uneasy that Hunt's bill would create free-speech concerns.
"We worked hard in 2001 to craft language that is not overly broad and will not create constitutional problems," Fidanque says.
Ronald Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., says Hunt's bill could easily be misused to infringe on students' rights to free speech.
"It's a bad policy," Collins says. "It's overly broad and rife with federal and state constitutional problems."
Hunt says he's amenable to working on free-speech concerns, saying it's not the bill's intent to infringe on those protections.