Three Northwest school districts are keeping an eye on Arizona statehouse legislation that, if signed by Governor Jan Brewer, would assess criminal penalties for anyone using an electronic or digital device to harass, intimidate or threaten another person.
The districts — Marana Unified School District, Amphitheater School District and Flowing Wells School District — each have policies in place to deal with bullying and cyberbullying.
House Bill 2549 was passed in April by the Arizona House and Senate, but is now under review by legislators because of constitutional concerns raised that claim it infringes on First Amendment rights.
The legislation amends Sections 13-2916 and 13-2923 of the Arizona Revised Statutes relating to electronic or digital devices, stating, “It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.”
A person found in violation of the statute would be guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.
Flowing Wells School District Superintendent Nicholas J. Clement said that most cyberbullying incidents happen at the high school level, and generally during the weekends when students are using Facebook or other web-based social sites.
“When it spills over into school and someone reports it, then we deal with it,” Clement said. “Whether it happens in or out of school, if it relates to school, we take action. If it happens out of school and there is a nexus that gets us involved, we investigate and act appropriately.”
Clement said cyberbullying falls under the Flowing Wells harassment policy, where the length of a suspension would be left to the decision of the school administrator, who would act depending on the severity of the problem.
Clement said the revised law on cyberbullying “would provide additional enforcement to school rules through the legal process, which would help particularly in very severe cases.” District policies are much broader in scope than the legislation, he added.
Regarding the issue that the legislation might infringe on First Amendment rights, Clement noted the legislators are wise to review the amended law. “I’d rather have them do their due diligence now so the law doesn’t end up in the courts,” he said.
Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent and general counsel at Amphitheater School District, said while the district has been dealing with cyberbullying for awhile, there have not been a lot of instances to be addressed.
“Kids make mistakes in doing things they shouldn’t do and learning how to be good citizens to others,” Jaeger said. “Sometimes kids are mean to other kids on the playground, in the lunchroom or in hallways, but now there’s a new place to do it — cyberspace. But regardless of where it takes place, it’s wrong.”
Jaeger said the district hasn’t seen any marked increase in cyberbullying incidents, and noted that it often occurs outside of school grounds.
“There are not many mechanisms or means where we can observe it directly, so we have to rely on the victim, a parent or friend of the victim to report it’s occurring,” he said. “When it occurs on school grounds, there’s more opportunity for us to deal with it immediately.”
The district has policies in place on how to investigate and deal with cyberbullying, which is considered the same as bullying under the Amphitheater’s code of conduct, Jaeger pointed out.
“Our code of conduct has the bullying policy and bullying report forms, so parents know we want to know about any incidents,” Jaeger said. “They can go online and fill out a form there and send it to us.”
Amphitheater has sponsored forums for parents on bullying, cyberbullying, hostility, aggression and drugs, in addition to the district’s internal bullying prevention efforts.
“I’m glad to see the state address the issue of cyberbullying,” Jaeger said. “Cyberspace is real for kids, a significant and important part of their lives, especially in their socializing and self esteem. It’s a positive thing any time we can shine light on something like bullying that is so destructive.”
Jan Truitt, assistant superintendent of Marana Unified School District (MUSD), said she was not familiar with the language of the legislation, so she was unsure if it would change how MUSD operates concerning cyberbullying.
“Our policy states that cyberbullying is not allowed on any of the technology that is part of district-owned property,” Truitt said. “It also states that a student can’t do that (cyberbullying) by means of personal electronic equipment on school grounds.”
Truitt noted that MUSD personnel already are required by law to report any threatening cyberbullying behavior to law enforcement.
“It seems that our district already goes as far as the law does,” she said. “If it happens on district phones or computers, we address any improper behavior. If it happens outside school and causes disruption on campus or causes a victim not to be able to access their education, we also take action.”
MUSD is one of the few school districts in the state to have a minimum of one counselor at every school. Counselors begin working with students at the elementary level, teaching them about bullying and techniques to deal with it, especially in coming forward and informing an adult. Counselors also teach bullying prevention strategies through classroom lessons.
At press time, the Arizona House had approved the bill’s amendments. There is no word on whether or not Brewer will sign it into law.