New law takes the battle against cyberbullying off campus

Donna Witsell’s daughter committed suicide in 2009 after being bullied at Beth Shields Middle in Ruskin. Witsell applauds legislative work to curb bullying.
Donna Witsell’s daughter committed suicide in 2009 after being bullied at Beth Shields Middle in Ruskin. Witsell applauds legislative work to curb bullying.
Published July 5, 2013

Cyberbullying has long been insidious but intangible, often just out of school administrators' reach.

They could take action only if bullying occurred on school property, or in the course of a school-sponsored program, or on a school bus.

But under a revised anti-bullying law that became effective Monday, school administrators in Florida have the authority to reach beyond school grounds. If cyberbullying "substantially" interferes with or disrupts the educational process, administrators may regulate and punish it — even when it originates on a computer or device off campus.

Local school board attorneys say implementation won't be a problem, as many districts already have been operating under similar procedures. But the expanded authority is giving pause to some First Amendment advocates.

Bullying and harassment have been prohibited in Florida schools since 2008, when a state law mandated policies against those behaviors, including bullying via computer. But this year's legislation calls attention to cyberbullying's importance in the changing landscape of school relations.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, has taught high school students for 13 years. In sponsoring the legislation, he found motivation in the times he's seen technology damage students' lives.

Spreading hateful messages or embarrassing photos is easy on the Internet, where anyone can work anonymously and effectively. Bullard has seen students' reputations and self-esteem suffer when nude photos circulate, and he said there is a need to address the new dynamic of bullying.

"You want something that is broad enough to deal with those technologies, and I think the bill does that," he said.

Pinellas School Board Attorney David Koperski said the revised law necessitates a change in policy but not practice.

"It codifies what a lot of our rights were to begin with," he said.

Hillsborough County School Board Attorney Tom Gonzalez said the new law won't change much in his district, which had been operating under similar principles.

"We've always taken the position of, if it has an impact on school, if it affects the victim, then we believe the teachers and administrators have jurisdiction," he said.

Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, said expanding administrators' authority is appropriate.

"It's a suicide-prevention measure," he said. "And we did not talk to a single group … that said we did not need to do it."

Donna Witsell agrees.

One September evening in 2009, Witsell went to check on her daughter in the bedroom of their south Hillsborough County home. She found 13-year-old Hope dead, having hanged herself with a pink scarf from her canopy bed.

"It's been a total destruction of our family, from one end of the spectrum to the other," Witsell said. "It's been a struggle and a fight to survive and to find the new life, you know, the different life that we have now."

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Hope had been tormented since she sent a nude photo to a boy and it spread around Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin and beyond. At one point, her friends had to escort her down the hallway as barriers to the constant verbal abuse.

Witsell applauds legislative work to curb bullying. But the suicide problem won't diminish, she said, unless school administrators follow through.

"Unfortunately, in the country we live in, it takes a lot of paper and a lot of pushing and pressing, and continually bringing awareness to things before people are actually held accountable," Witsell said. "In the meantime, child after child after child continues to die."

The new legislation lets school boards decide how to implement the law.

But some free speech advocates have found issues with the expanded reach given to schools.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said he worries that general unkindness might get swept into the larger category of bullying.

"What we're going to see is a wave of zero tolerance," he said. "The desire to create a paper trail to avoid liability is going to push a lot of really harmless behavior over the line into suspension and expulsion."

He said some words in the Florida law, such as "teasing" and "social exclusion," set a low threshold for harassment that could entangle school administrators in matters such as messy breakups or rivalries.

"There's going to be no logical stopping point to their authority," LoMonte said.

Complicating the matter is the lack of national consensus on regulating off-campus speech. There is no definitive court precedent, as the Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue. Generally, courts have held that public school officials may regulate student speech that is substantially disruptive. But cyberbullying is new territory.

Gonzalez sees it in much simpler terms.

"If it affects physical safety, or emotional well-being or property of the school, I think there's a place for the school board to act."

Claire McNeill can be reached at Twitter: @clairemcneill.