By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service
LANSING — As more young people turn to technology as a social tool, the boundaries that once confined bullies to the playground and classroom are disappearing.
According to Big Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Langdon, cyberbullying is just as disconcerting as being bullied at school or physically bullied and can have devastating effects on children who regard the Internet as safe territory.
He said that while cyberbullying may not take place at school, it disturbs the school environment, and it’s the schools’ goal to make children feel safe there.
Michigan is one of five states without anti-bullying laws, according to Bully Police USA, a national watchdog organization that was co-founded by East Lansing resident Kevin Epling.
According to the Research Center for Cyberbullying, 30 states have laws that include electronic harassment. Five specifically mention cyberbullying.
Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said she hopes to make the law reflect objectives like Langdon’s.
The State Board of Education has recommends anti-bullying policies that cover cyberbullying, but districts aren’t required to follow them.
The Department of Education doesn’t track which districts have anti-bullying policies.
Bob Higgins, safe schools consultant for the Department of Education, said that legislative inaction partly led to the board’s decision to create the model anti-bullying policy.
Whitmer along with Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, and other lawmakers introduced a package of bills that would make cyberbullying illegal and would require schools to establish anti-bullying policies with specific mention of cyberbullying.
The legislation would also expand the use of the Michigan School Violence Hotline to include cyberbullying reports.
Whitmer introduced similar legislation last year, but it stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Whitmer’s press secretary, Katie Carey, said she anticipates the bill’s success this session because of the urgency of the issue.
“We are constantly hearing more and more problems about cyberbullying,” Carey said.
“The more we hear about it, especially at a national level, the more important it’s going to become,” she said
Carey said Whitmer focused attention on cyberbullying legislation to ensure that steps are in place to help students victimized by cyberabuse trends.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, between 10 to 30 percent of teens are bullied online.
Glenn Stutzky, a cyberbullying specialist and social work instructor at Michigan State University, authored a study that labeled cyberbullying the fastest-growing trend in bullying among teens.
Stutzky suggested that cyberbullying can be more invasive than schoolyard bullying because technology prevents the bully from witnessing the consequences of his or her actions.
While the Big Rapids district has an anti-bullying policy, it doesn’t specifically include cyberbullying.
Langdon said that every district has some degree of cyberbullying. He said that the problems he’s dealt with, however, have been less consequential than some reported in the national media.
For example, he said the district has had minor disturbances with social media sites, like Facebook.
While Langdon acknowledged that bullying is a serious issue, he said an anti-bullying law should be broad enough to allow each district to create its own policy.
“You can make generalities like physical bullying is designed to instill fear in a student and verbal is to humiliate somebody, but both of those could be interchanged. For one person or one group of people to decide the specific policy for anyone else’s school is problematic because there’s different values in different districts across the state,” he said.
Whitmer’s legislation calls for each district to “adopt and implement a policy prohibiting harassment intimidation, bullying or cyberbullying”.
Districts would also be required to include in their technology policies language that prohibits cyberbullying and would require students and their parents’ signatures to acknowledge those policies.
Whitmer’s legislation is pending in the Senate Education Committee and Brown’s is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.