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SCHOOLS TACKLE CYBERBULLIES

The new year also brings district policy changes on cell phone use and homework.

School bullies no longer are confined to the cafeteria or ball fields. Through e-mails and text messages, they can find your child at home.

But if they keep up the harassment the next day in school, teachers can do something about it. Beginning this year, the Hillsborough school district will punish cyberbullies just like they do the old-school variety.

Technology is driving changes to the student rule book for the school year that begins Aug. 20.

Along with cyberbullies, administrators are cracking down on cell phones used to cheat on tests. Other changes are designed to make sure elementary students don't get overwhelmed with homework and high schoolers who excel in science have a chance to earn an extra exam exemption.

The move to crack down on cyberbullying comes as the countywide PTA/PTSA council has started offering internet safety training for parents about sites like MySpace and Facebook.

"It's very much a sign of the times," said president Tammy Cummings. "Instead of bullying each other on the playground they are doing it online."

School officials say text messages and instant messaging are blurring traditional lines between what happens at home and at school. Bullying that starts on a home computer can spill into the classroom.

"Once it enters the school building, it becomes a school issue," said Debi Veranth, director of administration for Hillsborough schools, noting that the bullying would have to continue clearly, such as with verbal threats. "I don't think a student can just come and say, 'He bullied me last night on the Internet and now I can't study.' "

Cell phones are another concern. Hillsborough students are allowed to have cell phones at school, but they must turn them off. That doesn't stop some from leaving them on vibrate or sneaking text messages between classes.

Now any child seen using a cell phone while taking a test or quiz will be disciplined for cheating.

"Some of (the cell phones) have calculators on them. They have cameras," Veranth said. "There's all kinds of different ways now for cheating."

Hillsborough also is adopting a countywide policy on cheating, previously addressed at individual high schools. The punishments include receiving a zero for any assignment involving cheating. Students won't be allowed to make up the work.

Other notable changes

- Homework in elementary schools: Existing rules are being clarified to make sure teachers don't overwhelm students. Each night, homework should be limited to 15 to 20 minutes in kindergarten, 30 minutes in first through third grades, and 45 minutes in fourth and fifth grades. This is the total time to spend on homework, not the time allowed for each class.

- After a controversy over gay-straight alliances, the district is ensuring that parents are aware of the clubs offered at each high school. Parents also have the right to declare some clubs off-limits to their child.

- High school students have an added incentive to do well on the FCAT science test. Those who pass the test in 11th grade can skip an exam at the end of the first semester the following school year. The policy kicks in for this year's 12th-graders.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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