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Menace Of Bullies: What Virginia Is Doing To Stop Cyberbullying

Patch logo Patch 6/2/2019 Deb Belt
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VIRGINIA — Justin Patchin bristles when he talks about the failure by the legislature in his home state of Wisconsin to make cyberbullying a crime. Lawmakers in 48 other states, including Virginia, have recognized bullying threatens the well-being of adolescents and teenagers so seriously that the law addresses the problem. Virginia lawmakers have enacted several laws in the last decade to outline bullying and disciplinary steps for incidents, plus making school districts start character education programs for students.

Nationally, about one-fourth of U.S. adolescents and teens say they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lives, and around 12 percent say they have bullied others online, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, where Patchin serves as co-director. Cyberbullying occurs less often than face-to-face bullying — about one in three kids experience that — but the effects of electronic abuse can be more severe than punches and kicks.

Cyberbullies can literally follow their targets everywhere they go on social media; internet anonymity removes a layer of empathy that can stop kids who bully in person before they go too far. As leading anti-bullying advocate Nicholas Carlisle put it, "empathy tends to fade to zero" when kids who bully can't see their targets face-to-face.

"If you can see someone, that's often a break upon people's aggression — not always, but it does seem to have some break upon crossing the line," said Carlisle, the founder of The problem of bullying is so widespread in America and the effects of it are so damaging that Patch is focusing on it an a national advocacy reporting project.

Erik Stangvik, No Bully's vice president of development and strategy, said bullying has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and cyberbullying "is even worse," especially among girls who "use the digital landscape in a more vitriolic way."

"When one in three kids is involved in a bullying situation on a daily basis, you know that's epidemic proportion," Stangvik said. "If this was something brought to the CDC and one in three people were getting some kind of disease, that would be an epidemic. We see this as such. ..."

State laws on bullying and cyberbullying have evolved over time. Ten years ago, most laws dealt only with bullying and didn't address the often relentless online torture that has driven some teens and adolescents to the unthinkable decision to take their lives.

"States have taken this seriously," Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center said of the laws. "It's a step in the right direction."

What Virginia Law Requires

In Virginia, a 2013 law on bullying requires school systems to set policies that define bullying, prohibit it, and outline possible disciplinary measures. Each school board is required to establish a character education program in its schools, with the aim of instilling in students civic virtues and personal character traits so as to improve the learning environment, promote student achievement, reduce disciplinary problems, and develop civic-minded students of high character.

In 2009, the legislature said Virginia must design a model policy for ... "bullying, the use of electronic means for purposes of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, and dissemination of such policies to students, their parents, and school personnel; and standards for in-service training of school personnel in and examples of the appropriate management of student conduct and student offenses in violation of school board policies, the Cyberbullying Research Center says.

A 2006 law made cyberbullying a Class 1 misdemeanor in the Commonwealth.

But anyone can fight bullies. Kindergartener Cavanaugh Bell of Gaithersburg, Maryland, launched an anti-bullying campaign in 2018 called Cool & Dope, which stands for "Considering Others' Obstacles in Life" and "Dish Out Positive Energy." Bell uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to spread positive messages. He has also spoken to local lawmakers about the problems children face in school.

"When I first told my mom I wanted to give back to others, she went looking for places I could volunteer. But, the answer was always the same… 'He's too young to help.' So, I created Cool & Dope to change that and show the world that we aren't too young to have a positive impact," the boy said.

Alaska joins Wisconsin among states that haven't criminalized cyberbullying. However, Wisconsin's slight is more personal for Patchin, a criminal justice professor for the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who has published volumes of research on bullying with Sameer Hinduja, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

A homegrown expert on issues surrounding online harassment, Patchin has lobbied Wisconsin lawmakers at the Capitol in Madison, but so far, they haven't addressed cyberbullying.

"It drives me crazy," he said.

The anti-bullying law in Wisconsin is one of the weakest in the country. Not only is it silent on cyberbullying, it doesn't cover bullying that occurs outside of school. The 2009 law required school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies by the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year and directed the state's Department of Public Instruction to create a model policy. But schools weren't required schools to adopt it, making for a patchwork of standards across the state.

Local school districts should have the flexibility to develop policies that reflect their unique needs, Patchin said, but he thinks it would be better to require core elements in all school policies across Wisconsin, including a comprehensive definition of bullying that includes cyberbullying, procedures for reporting and investigating, and consequences.

Montana's anti-bullying law isn't any better. The state was one of the last to pass an anti-bullying law, and although it does include cyberbullying in the definition of bullying, it's little more than tokenism.

"It really didn't do anything," Patchin said. "It didn't require schools to have policies. It just defined it."

He would like to see more states take approaches to bullying and cyberbullying that are similar to laws in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Minnesota.

In New Jersey, Mallory's Law, a measure introduced in the New Jersey legislature that bears the name of Rockaway 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who killed herself to escape intense bullying, would strengthen the state's already strong "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights."

The proposed Mallory's Law, currently before the Senate Education Committee, not only requires students involved in three proven bullying incidents to attend an anti-bullying training session with their parents, but also could subject parents to civil liability if they show "blatant disregard or supervising their child, [or] if their child has been judged to be delinquent of harassment or cyber harassment."

Mallory took her own life following what her parents have said was horrific bullying. The Grossman family said in a lawsuit that the school failed to prevent bullying from four classmates, and administrator's actions made Mallory's suffering worse. The Grossmans say in their lawsuit that a group of four girls bullied Mallory at home via social media, in the classroom and in the lunchroom, actions the family claims directly led to Mallory's suicide death on June 14, 2017. The suit says the school district fell short of a legal obligation to prevent bullying.

Schools Lack Money To Implement Laws

The problem with most anti-bullying laws, Patchin said, is that once they're on the books, schools don't have ready cash to implement them, and the costs can be significant. New Jersey, notably, was sued for its unfunded mandate for anti-bullying policies. In response, lawmakers did appropriate $1 million, but that was spread across the entire state.

"Very little, if any, money is provided to schools to do anything. The laws largely stops at requiring policy, but don't provide money to hire counselors and implement programs like social-emotional learning," Patchin said. "I think schools would like to do more, but they're hamstrung — they don't have the resources, they don't have the time and they don't have the staff. If you went to a school and said, 'We're going to give you the money to do X-Y-Z,' they would love that."

Schools are a logical place for anti-bullying programs, Patchin said, but making them responsible "on top of everything else they are responsible for, I think, is unreasonable."

And when programs are put in place, "there needs to be a difficult conversation about what gets replaced," Patchin said.

Cyberbullying Hasn't Increased, Despite Headlines

Despite the attention, often wrought by suicides by adolescents and teenagers, cyberbullying hasn't increased, but has remained stable, according to Cyberbullying Research Center data.

"On average, in our research, 25 percent of students have experienced cyberbullying in their lifetime — 10 percent in the last 30 days," Patchin said. "We're collecting data at the moment to see how things have changed — bullying still affects more kids in school. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of kids say they have cyberbullied. You can debate it, but it's relatively consistent in over a dozen studies."

Suicides by young people who broke under the pressure of bullying are "very terrible," he said, "but it's quite rare."

"They are headline making because they are rare," Patchin said. "For the most part, young people are navigating technology responsibly."

Hinduja, Patchin's colleague at the Cyberbullying Research Center, said there's no direct research coupling bullying and cyberbullying with suicide.

Of those adolescents and teenagers who have taken their lives, "it hasn't been directly because of bullying or cyberbullying," said Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University. "Those kids … were struggling in some other capacity. It could be that bullying or cyberbullying is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, but in all research, there's not a direct link."

It is true that kids who are bullied or cyberbullied "struggle emotionally with lower self-esteem, anxiety, headaches, eating disorders and other maladies," he said. "Since society has been trying to reduce the stigma of mental health, you've got to let people know what is going on. We cannot read your mind."

The vast majority of adolescents and teenagers who are cyberbullied "don't take their lives," are using social media responsibly and engage in healthy, positive online relationships, Hinduja said.

"Parents are freaked out," he said, "They never have enough time to get to know what's going on, and there's always going to be a new app. But most kids tend to be decent human beings with a sensitive conscience and a moral compass.

"The vast majority do the right thing; they're not clowning around. Our hope is that we can marshal the power of peer pressure to induce more good behavior from kids across the board."

Schools Need Parents' Help

Patchin and Hinduja said state-mandated anti-bullying programs in schools are part of the solution, but parents and other adults need to step up their online game as well, because adolescents and teens take their cues about appropriate behavior from their older role models.

"Adults are doing the same thing, and it's very frustrating" Hinduja said. "Kids are looking at adults, and obtaining rationalizations that it's OK to do it."

Added Patchin: "Parents, frankly, need to be better role models. A lot of parents are engaged in incivility online. We have an opportunity to show children that even when we disagree vehemently, we can be civil."

The important thing, Patchin added, is that parents talk to their kids about what's going on at school and when they're online, as well as when they see public figures engaging in bullying.

"Parents need to get out of their comfort zone and kind of acknowledge inappropriate behavior,"

Patchin said. "If they're watching the news and they see someone acting ridiculously or inappropriately, on either side of the political spectrum, it's an opportunity to have a conversation with kids that that's not how we treat one another."

Patchin noted that most kids' inappropriate online behavior isn't political.

"They might be encouraged by the rhetoric," he said, "but most of the time, they just want a laugh and to be funny, but they don't fully understand the harm they are causing.

"It's a teachable moment that these things are hurtful, and you don't know what these kids are going through."

The Menace Of Bullies: A Patch Series

As part of a national reporting project, Patch has been looking at society's roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child's unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

Do you have a story to tell? Are you concerned about how your local schools handle bullies and their victims?

Email us at bullies@patch.com and share your views in the comments.

Earlier In This Series

Reported and written by Beth Dalbey, Patch national staff.

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