Cyberbullying has captured the attention of mainstream news – particularly the extreme and tragic exemplars such as the suicides of Megan Meier, Phoebe Prince, and Asher Brown. Apart from news, popular dramas such as Law & Order: SVU feature several episodes revolving around the use of video games, virtual worlds, and cell phones as technologies of meanness, violence, sexual exploitation and deviance. Broadly defined, cyberbullying is when an individual or group uses communication technologies to deliberately and repeatedly harass or intimidate another person. In response to the perceived increase of cyberbullying, the federal government has launched both a National Crime Prevention Council campaign against cyberbullying as well as an extensive and well-funded anti-cyberbullying health campaign conducted by the Center for Disease Control. At a more micro level, local school districts have implemented regulatory policies intended to prevent and punish cyberbullying, as well as state lawmakers who have proposed and in some cases passed Senate and House bills which outline legal definitions and regulations of cyberbullying
This year the Texas Senate proposed 15 bills addressing concerns of (cyber)bullying and just this week the Senate approved SB205 from Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. In addition to providing a definition for cyberbullying, the bill outlines out 13 things that each school district’s policy must address and includes provisions to hold school districts accountable for failing to address reports of bullying. The policy must:
- prohibit bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, and intimidation
- describe the behavior expected from students
- lay out the consequences of bullying – specifically allowing counseling or referral to anti-bullying services
- include a procedure for reporting bullying, including anonymous reporting
- encourage students and employees to report bullying
- layout a procedure for investigating bullying
- describe how a school district will respond to confirmed bullying
- prohibit retaliation against people who report bullying
- have a rule against intimation of witnesses and victims of bullying to prevent reporting
- describe how a school district will respond to retaliation for reporting or intimation of witnesses or victims
- specify how the policy will be publicized
- specify that publicization of the policy must state that it applies both on campus and at off campus school sponsored events
- identify which school officials are responsible for implementing the policy
Overall I think I like this bill. It is vague enough to be customized and adapted to individual school districts thus giving them autonomy to structure the policy in a way that best serves their schools. It requires clearcut consequences for bullying and doesn’t pigeonhole cyberbullying as distinct from offline bullying, which I believe is a good thing. Narrow policies aimed at only preventing cyberbullying completely miss the mark: students do not necessarily make distinctions between online and offline bullying and research demonstrates that aggressive behaviors move fluidly within these spaces (in other words, the behaviors are rarely isolated to just online or offline interactions).
SB205 is a bit more conservative in its approach than some of the other proposed bills such as SB242 by Wendy Davis, D-Ft Worth which stretches the policy to also include off-campus issues that affect school environments. While nice in theory, I actually struggle with schools regulating and policing off-campus behaviors, typically I feel that is best left to parents and law enforcement rather than schools. Davis’ proposed bill also allowed for schools to relocate bullies to another school rather than victims. My initial response is in favor of this because it avoids victim-blaming and victim-shaming. However, in practice this too is difficult since research demonstrates the categories of victim and bully are not so neatly dichotomous – that is, victims often become bullies and bullies are often retaliating victims. When relocation seems to be the best plan of action I think both the bully and the victim ought to have that option when it is in the best interest of the child.
While I am generally in favor of SB205, I am still left wondering when, if, and how schools are addressing the actual roots of bullying? The larger questions of diversity and tolerance (or lack thereof) remain largely unaddressed, at least within news coverage and discourse. At Console-ing Passions (Eugene, Oregon, 2010) I presented a paper on the ways cyberbullying has been framed within the news. I argued that from a discursive perspective of moral and media panics perhaps one reason these larger issues of bullying are often absent from mainstream discourses is because addressing the “why” of bullying draws attention away from youth behaviors – behaviors which we can control – and instead shifts the focus towards society. Within the news (and arguably policies) (cyber)bullying is constructed as a youth problem (despite the fact that the most “famous” incident of Megan Meier was the result of an adult’s, not a child’s, behaviors). But as long as (cyber)bullying remains a “youth problem”, it can be subjected to collective control and management. But the moment the problem becomes a larger societal problem then the blame is placed onto adults’ racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes – attitudes which cannot be controlled through the pathnologizing and criminalizing policies and discourses (in the “real” world “bullying” is not against the rules). Youth are often a scapegoat on whom larger social anxieties are displaced and whose behaviors society place under control and surveillance. As a result (cyber)bullying and moralization panic distract us from larger racist, sexist, and homophobic discourses which cannot be so easily disciplined in the “real” world.