March 13, 2013

High school students who engage in out-of-school confrontations on Twitter and Facebook and other social-networking websites might soon face in-school punishments if a tweak to Iowa's definition of bullying proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad gets traction at the Capitol.

A bill approved by the Iowa House Education Committee for debate on the House floor last week says schools should be allowed to call any kind of harassment bullying - whether it's face-to-face or smartphone-to-smartphone - as long as it meets certain guidelines.

But Carroll Community Schools superintendent Rob Cordes said the change - if approved - might be difficult to enforce.

"Now we're responsible for out-of-school behavior?" Cordes lamented. "We're not responsible for them speeding on the highway."

The possible examples of harassment or bullying are easy to spot on Twitter, which allows students to attack others from a cloak of anonymity.

A September exchange between Twitter users @chs_life - a supposed Carroll High School student - and @educatedkhslife - a supposed Kuemper Catholic student - include:

@chs_life: We don't have enough money to bribe people over here at Carroll unlike all you rich Kuemper kids

@educatedkhslife: Of course you Tigers would be that excited to win something, since you fail to any other time

@chs_life: You should keep that dollar and put towards your tuition to your expensive (expletive) private school

@chs_life: Yeah. Kuemper people are (expletives)

Coon Rapids-Bayard superintendent Rich Stoffers said free-speech rights might impede any new legislation that tries to halt cyberbullying.

"We've already seen many court cases where administrators have tried to establish discipline ... from incidents that happen outside the school day," Stoffers said. "Quite frankly, schools haven't been very successful in carrying out those issues."

A Daily Times Herald review of area school smartphone and Internet policies shows that most students have access to the social-networking sites for at least part of their school days. The so-called "one-to-one" initiatives that have swept the state and might put tablets and laptop computers in the hands of each student complicates the issue, school administrators agree.

The unprecedented access that teens have to each other on the Internet is at the heart of Branstad's new cyberbullying bill, which was the result of his Bullying Prevention Summit in November in Des Moines. About 1,200 people attended the summit to discuss ways to curb bullying and harassment.

Iowa Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, introduced the anti-cyberbullying bill last month to the House Education Committee, which voted Thursday to make it available for a larger House debate.

It's unclear whether the idea will gain the full approval of the House and Senate.

Carroll administrators and teachers don't actively monitor social-networking sites but act on tips. Students sometimes refer on Facebook and Twitter to underage drinking parties, but without concrete proof, school officials can do little to punish student-athletes for the alleged illegal acts.

As for current policies at the school, Cordes said faculty members aren't encouraged to actively monitor the social-networking sites.

Carroll Community School District has a policy in its handbook dedicated to the appropriate uses of computers, computer-like equipment, computer network systems and the Internet.

"Students and staff members shall only engage in appropriate, ethical and legal utilization of the district's computers, computer network systems and Internet access," according to the policy.

Student access to any of the school's computers is a privilege, not a right, under the policy, and as such is open to monitoring.

Students of the Carroll schools are not supposed to make offensive or harassing statements, use harassing or offensive language including remarks based on age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or metal ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status or familial status.

The policy goes on to say that "reasonable efforts" will be made to make sure students will be under supervision while on the school's network.

Smartphones, which are allowed in some local schools, have access to the Internet through cellular networks, rather than school networks, and cannot be monitored directly by schools.

School leaders agree that the out-of-school bullying can have dramatic effects on students.

Stoffers, the Coon Rapids superintendent, said the proposed legislation would give school administrators more leeway in combating bullying, but he is dubious as to how far school districts are supposed to take online-bullying issues.

"I'm not sure we want to get into the position of what happens on weekends," Stoffers said. "Just like parties. Unless someone brings it to your attention, we're not looking to see who's on a gravel road or who's partying at whose house."

Coon Rapids-Bayard policies allow the monitoring of student Internet access at school.

"The school district will monitor the online activities of students and will educate students about appropriate online behavior, including interacting on social networking sites and chat rooms," according to the policy.

Parents of students at Coon Rapids-Bayard sign an agreement at the beginning of the year that grants their children permission to access Internet while at school.

He said the school will be seeking guidance from its lawyer on how to implement any new bullying legislation if it's passed.

To help stop the spread of in-school cyberbullying issues, Coon Rapids-Bayard has a cellphone policy in place.

Students can use cellphones in hallways, but from there it's up to the teachers' discretion.

Stoffers said some teachers encourage students to use applications and technology on their cellphones while other teachers ask students to place phones in a container on their desks.

South Central Calhoun also has a cellphone policy in place that says the devices must be deactivated while in class. If a phone makes a noise of any kind, it can be confiscated and taken to the administrative office.

However, students may use their phones during pass time between classes and during lunch in the commons.

The South Central Calhoun anti-bullying policy states that students or employees - while on school-owned property or in school-owned vehicles or while attending school-sponsored activities or while away from school grounds - can still be punished for misconduct if bullying affects the order, efficient management or welfare of the school or the district.

The district prohibits retaliation against any person and states that any person who files a false harassment complaint can be subject to discipline.

Violation of the policies at South Central Calhoun can result in loss of access to Internet, community service, detention, suspension, notification of legal authorities, monetary restitution or expulsion.

The Glidden-Ralston district is reviewing its Internet-use policy as it works to launch its one-on-one initiative. The district sent a letter to parents that asks for input.

According to a question and answer form provided by Glidden's Superintendent, Dave Haggard, the district will be proactive about online safety and cyber-bullying.

The questionnaire says that websites will be monitored and software will be installed on the students' computers to block inappropriate websites.

The district will be able to send messages to students or lock down computers at any time.