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Discourage ‘cyberbullying’

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Technology has made many things easier to do, including a whole raft of bad behavior along with the good. Rarely has there been a more poignant reminder of that than the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death after a video of a homosexual encounter found its way online.

Rather than think about this as a grim aberration that’s remote from local experience, however, Hawaii residents have to recognize that the misuse of online communications has become a national, even global, concern. The fact that such "cyberbullying" has not left a deep public imprint on island life doesn’t mean it isn’t here. Face-to-face bullying has a long and dismal history among the state’s youths and, as so much relating among teens and pre-teens has moved online, it’s safe to assume the bullying goes on amid the Facebook posts, YouTube shared videos and in other corners of the Web.

Bullying might even become more virulent in the virtual realm. It’s easier to let fly a stinging barb or share an embarrassing story at someone’s expense if you can do so without witnessing the reaction. Certainly, taunts posted on websites behave more like a virus, spreading quickly through a crowd. Worse yet, a cyber assault can leave an indelible mark. The evidence tends to persist for a prolonged period, if not forever.

Previous cyberbullying cases have produced a cascade of legislative actions in various states. In Hawaii, most of the effort has been within the realm of public schools. About a year ago, the state Department of Education added relevant language to Hawaii Administrative Rule 19, the set of regulations dealing with disciplinary actions.

So far the state Legislature has resisted efforts to expand on this. The most recent flurry of bills, emanating from the 2009 session, died quietly this year. One measure that got a hearing was Senate Bill 792, which sought an expanded list of DOE rules including, among several others, "a prohibition against students cyberbullying other students."

This drew down a protest from the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, over concerns that such broad language seems to cover activities both on and off campus; this, said the ACLU, could interfere with free-speech rights.

Pat Hamamoto, then the schools superintendent, rightly argued that the new rules, which were on the brink of adoption at that point, were sufficient. Currently, said a department spokesperson, the DOE is nearing completion on protocols to spell out more clearly how the rule would be carried out.

In other jurisdictions, case law has supported public school officials regulating off-campus cyberspeech only on occasions when it results in a disruption on campus. This seems to be a reasonable guiding principle. The role of school administration is to enable learning and free expression, but it’s also there to protect the students’ general safety and welfare. At some point cyberbullying can intrude on campus, regardless where the student sat when the keypad was tapped.

Beyond the disciplinary realm, both public and private schools have begun efforts to nip bad behavior in the bud. Former Honolulu police detective Chris Duque has made appearances in classrooms, speaking to students and teachers about the potential dangerous consequences of reckless online communications. Such intervention programs should be encouraged in schools.

But everyone owns a piece of this problem. Parents need to find the occasions to teach children that they are accountable for injuries they cause, regardless of how they’re inflicted.

The Internet has been such a transformational tool of communication, it’s easy to forget that it also can function as a barrier, that there are real people who can indeed be hurt on either side of the digital divide.

 

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