PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ryan Patrick Halligan was bullied for months online. Classmates sent the 13-year-old Essex Junction, Vt., boy instant messages calling him gay. He was threatened, taunted and insulted incessantly by so-called cyberbullies.
In 2003, Ryan killed himself.
“He just went into a deep spiral in eighth grade. He couldn’t shake this rumor,” said Ryan’s father, John Halligan, who became a key proponent of a state law that forced Vermont schools to put anti-bullying rules in place. He’s now pushing for a broader law to punish cyberbullying — often done at home after school — and wants every other state to enact laws expressly prohibiting it.
States from Oregon to Rhode Island are considering crackdowns to curb or outlaw the behavior in which kids taunt or insult peers on social Web sites like MySpace or via instant messages. Still, there is some disagreement over how effective crackdowns will be and how to do it.
‘The kids are forcing our hands’
“The kids are forcing our hands to do something legislatively,” said Rhode Island state Sen. John Tassoni, who introduced a bill to study cyberbullying and hopes to pass a cyberbullying law by late 2007.
But others argue that legislation would be ineffective. George McDonough, an education coordinator with Rhode Island’s Department of Education, concedes that the Internet has become an “instant slam book” but questions whether laws can stem bad behavior.
“You can’t legislate norms, you can only teach norms,” he said. “Just because it’s a law, they don’t necessarily follow it. I mean, look at the speed limit.”
The Internet allows students to insult others in relative anonymity, and experts who study cyberbullying say it can be more damaging to victims than traditional bullying like fistfights and classroom taunts.
Legislators and educators say there’s a need for guidelines outlining how to punish cyberbullying. They say the behavior has gone unchecked for years, with few laws or policies on the books explaining how to treat it.
Cyberbullying is often limited to online insults about someone’s physical appearance, friends, clothing or sexuality. But some cyberbullies are more creative. In Washington state, a bully stole a girl’s instant message username and used it to send out insulting messages.
Punishment vs. free speech
In New York, two high school boys were accused of operating an Internet site that listed girls’ “sexual secrets.” Prosecutors decided not to charge the boys because of free-speech concerns.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it will be difficult to draft a cyberbullying law that doesn’t infringe on free-speech rights.
“The fact that two teenagers say nasty things about each other is a part of growing up,” he said. “How much authority does a school have to monitor, regulate and punish activities occurring inside a student’s home?”
In Arkansas, the state Senate this month passed a bill calling on school districts to set up policies to address cyberbullying only after it was amended to settle concerns about students’ free-speech rights.
States are taking different approaches to the problem.
A South Carolina law that took effect this year requires school districts to define bullying and outline policies and repercussions for the behavior, including cyberbullying. One school district there has proposed punishments from warnings up to expulsion for both traditional bullying and cyberbullying.
Some of Oregon’s most powerful lawmakers have lined up behind a proposed bill that would require all of the state’s 198 school districts to adopt policies that prohibit cyberbullying.
Some local school districts aren’t waiting for the state to take action: The Sisters school district in Central Oregon adopted rules that allow it to revoke cyberbullies’ school Internet privileges, or even expel a student in egregious cases.
Ted Thonstad, superintendent of the rural school district of 1,475 students, said it was important to clarify by policy how to treat cyberbullying — now prohibited under strict school hazing rules. Previously, the district had guidelines for what types of Internet sites students could visit, he said, but no policy specifically dealt with cyberbullying.
Prevention must start at home, educator says
Thonstad said no case prompted the policy, although there were some minor incidents of cyberbullying before it went into place at the beginning of the school year. Nothing has been reported since then.
“It’s difficult to monitor if you don’t have the right software,” he said. “So you rely on students to let you know when it’s going on.”
Other schools also are being proactive. Rhode Island’s McDonough sent both public and private school superintendents information and resources on cyberbullying. One school is designing lesson plans to help stop cyberbullying and protect children from Internet predators.
“I think it would be a good idea if there was a law, but I really believe it has to start at home,” said Patricia McCormick, assistant principal of the private St. Philip School in Smithfield, R.I.
McCormick said all the teachers in the school have been trained on Internet safety, and students now receive at least 15 classes on the subject, which includes cyberbullying. But she said stopping the problem will require parental participation.
MySpace prohibits cyberbullying
“Cyberbullying isn’t going on in school,” she said. “It is going on at home, and I think there needs to be more programs to educate parents about the dangers.”
News Corp.’s social-networking site MySpace prohibits cyberbullying and tells users to report abuse — to the company as well as parents and law enforcement, according to a statement issued by Hemanshu Nigam, the company’s chief security officer.
John Halligan, whose son’s suicide has turned him into an advocate for broader cyberbullying laws that would allow victims and their families to pursue civil penalties against bullies, said something must be done to stop the problem.
“I didn’t simply want it to be Ryan’s school that agreed to do something,” he said. “At the end of the day this wasn’t just a problem in Ryan’s school.”
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