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Among its many consequences, the diffusion of new forms of electronic communication has given bullies new means for ridicule, harassment,  and belittlement. Being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social aggression online or using other technology, also known as cyber-bullying, is a serious concern for school administrators. While school officials must proactively protect students and prevent disruptions, they are also legally obligated to respect students' right to free speech. Effectively Maintaining this balance requires careful consideration of each specific case and cooperation with legal counsel. However, several general considerations apply. 
Free Speech: According to a 1969 court ruling, school officials can legally prohibit student speech only if it "would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students." In the past, this has applied to off-campus online speech. Determining whether material posted on a website would cause substantial disruption requires careful evaluation of the situation, potentially with legal guidance, and any action taken must be fully documented. Your Responsibility: While it is important that school officials not overstep students' right to free speech when monitoring cyber-bullying, they also must not take a passive role. When cyber-bullying take place through the use of a district internet system, school-owned computers or other school property, liability concerns arise. Since cyber-bullying is a relatively recent issue, there is no legal precedent. To avoid negligence, schools must ensure that they exercise a reasonable standard of care. Adopting and proactively enforcing an official bullying policy using strategies such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program could be considered prudent. While officials should always contact legal counsel to discuss the extent of their liability, adequate precautions might include the following steps. * Organize a planning effort to address current practices and implement an anti-cyber bullying program. * Through policy, ensure adequate monitoring of student internet use. * Educate faculty and students about the seriousness of cyber-bullying and communicate related policies. 
Posted 12:41 PM  View Comments

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