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You Have Hate Mail
This, at least, seems to be the lesson from Chicago, where teachers and education bureaucrats are grappling with the growing phenomenon of "cyberbullying": using electronic messaging to ostracize, threaten and harass an individual. Three teenagers were suspended from Taft High School last month for posting obscene and threatening remarks about teachers -- such as a desire to slit one's throat "like a chicken" -- on their personal weblogs. In issuing the penalties, the school's administrators were in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a school board's power to limit students' rights to free expression in favor of school safety.
The case raises troubling questions: If a kid sends offensive material from his bedroom computer, what right do school authorities have to intervene? And on a purely practical level, is it possible to nab bullies and mischief-makers in the miasma of cyberspace?
These questions are equally relevant in Canada, where incidents have become both more frequent and severe since cyber-bullying first came to light a few years ago, notes Bill Belsey, the education consultant in Cochrane, Alta., who coined the term and now runs a website with information on cyber-bullying. In one prominent case, students in Burlington, Ont., created a site dedicated entirely to humiliating a 17-year-old classmate, David Knight, by branding him a pedophile and bombarding him with hateful emails. And in a study released last year, one-quarter of Grade 7 students in two Alberta schools said they'd been bullied via the Net. As more youngsters acquire cellphones with text-messaging capabilities, the number of cyber-bullying cases increases.
Some victims and their families turn to the courts because they feel there's no other way to fight back. Internet service providers have long resisted being censors, while police are powerless to act until the abuse reaches the level of death threats or criminal harassment. The Knight family grew so frustrated they finally sued their school system for failing to protect them from four years of "harassment, abuse, humiliating and degrading treatment and bullying." Claiming defamation is another option. But as David Potts, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in online libel cases, points out, the law may be too blunt an instrument in many cases: "It's not going to do what you want, which is to get the behavior to stop."
In the end, Canadian schools may be in the best position to fight online harassment -- and Canadian courts, historically even more attentive than their American counterparts to the need for safety and order, would likely back them up, notes Richard Rosenberg, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia, who has studied the interplay of online communication, free speech and privacy.
Schools could start, experts say, by updating rules written before kids had computers in their bedrooms. Most so-called acceptable use policies were designed to discourage misuse of school networks, Belsey notes, where teenagers now spend a mere fraction of their time online. He's urging school boards to rewrite their policies to include all Internet use -- in class, at home and over their cellphones. The deals might not be legally enforceable, he acknowledges, "but the more you bring parents on-board with issues like this, the more inclined they are to talk with their kids, to convince them that access to the Internet is a privilege, not a right."