Sound Off: Putting an end to school bullies in cyber-land

By Rick Schulte, Superintendent

Rick Wallace, Police Chief

Mark Brown, Sheriff

If your child is the victim of bullying while at school, you can and should expect the principal to do what he can to put an end to it. You should expect an investigation that involves the parents, weighs the evidence, and sends a message loud and clear that bullying in any form will not be tolerated.

Today, bullying is often more digital and less face-to-face. One student might make a threat to another through a text message or spread damaging rumors on Facebook. They might even send out a photo of the student naked, either because they think it’s funny or to cause maximum embarrassment. They often don’t even know it’s illegal. To the victim, it can be devastating, leading to poor performance in school, depression at home, and in rare cases, suicide.

If bullying takes place on school grounds, any student has the right to report it to the principal and expect an investigation. But what happens when the evidence is digital, a blip of memory on a student’s cell phone? In most cases, there is no policy or procedure for guiding schools in dealing with cyber-bullying.

It has become such a problem in Washington that the Legislature passed a law requiring schools to develop policies on how to investigate cyber-bullying and “sexting” (the digital distribution of nude photos). Oak Harbor is a leader in developing those policies now.

Here is what the policy does. First, it involves parents. If a student is suspected of cyber-bullying in school, principals can request permission to look at the phone. (Most students give permission.) If the student refuses, the phone will be confiscated and parents called. Parents can give permission over the phone or they can come in to the school to be an active part of the investigation concerning their child.

If parents are unavailable or refuse permission, the principal can choose to call in law enforcement, continue the investigation without checking the phone, or go ahead and look at only that part of the phone log in question.

The hope in this process is that school principals can handle most issues within the school, using policy and procedure to guide them. In that way it might be possible to use the infraction as a teachable moment and provide guidance to the student, without needlessly involving law enforcement or subjecting students to an intimidating legal process.

It’s important to note that any search conducted at school, whether a backpack, a locker, or a cellphone, would be very specific in its scope. The search is limited to only the item in question.

For example, if a student is asked to empty his pockets to see if he has a knife, the investigator does not get to look through the student’s wallet. The same goes for a search of a cell phone. There can be no wholesale review of phone logs, photos, or messages – just the item in question.

The Washington State Legislature is right. Cyber-bullying requires an answer. A combination of education and enforcement will do the job. But principals do need the tools to get the job done, keep all children safe in school, and offer a healthy learning environment.

Go to www.ohsd.net and click on school board policies, to learn more about the proposed policy and view a presentation about cyber-bullying created by the Oak Harbor Police Department.

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