With laws lacking on cyberbullying and texting, ISU conference guides educators

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
April 14, 2010

Though laws have lagged behind advances in technology, during Indiana State University's 35th annual School Law Conference on Wednesday speakers gave advice to school district officials in areas such as cyberbullying and sexting.

The conference, sponsored by the Bayh College of the Education and the department of educational leadership, administration and foundations, allows school administrators and future administrators to learn about current changes in law.

"There's no way that student or school administrator can stay up-to-date with all of the changes without the conference," said Terry McDaniel, assistant professor in educational leadership, administration and foundations.

Tricia Johnson, director of adult education at Southeastern Career Center in Versailles, said making connections with others is an important part of the conference.

"Networking and finding out what resources are out there are the biggest take aways," she said. "We know who we can call to find out the answer."

About 150 people attended the conference with sessions that examined the school's role in cyberbullying and sexting cases among other technological issues.

"Technology is a really hot topic," McDaniel said. "Students and staff use technology in ways that are appropriate and inappropriate. Schools don't know how to deal with technology cases. The only way we can prepare them is to tell them what the courts are saying about it."

Thomas Wheeler, chair of the National School Boards Association's Counsel of School Attorneys, compared students' unmonitored use of the Internet and cell phones to William Golding's novel, "Lord of the Flies."

"Kids when unsupervised revert to savagery that led to the death of a character named Piggy," he said.

In cyberbullying, Wheeler said, there is a lack of supervision and the bully can remain virtually anonymous, which leads to savagery in cyberbullying that wouldn't take place if they were face-to-face. Also with cell phones, bullies can target a victim anywhere and at any time.

He cited a study the students at Lebanon High School recently conducted among their peers. Out of almost 900 students surveyed, 33 percent said they had been bullied online. The majority of those were females. Also 25 percent said they sent bullying messages. More than one-third of the students surveyed said they had posted negative comments about others online. Of those, 54 percent were female.

"What is the school's role," Wheeler asked. "We don't really know."

While different cases are making their ways through the court systems, Wheeler said they do not help school administrators who need advice now.

"My advice is to protect the kid," he said. "Worry about the lawsuit later."

Bridget Roberts-Pittman, an assistant professor of counseling at Indiana State, said cyberbullying happens in all schools whether urban or rural.

"Cyberbullying is a totally different animal than bullying," she said.

She defined cyberbullying as sending or posting harmful or cruel text messages or images using the Internet or other digital communication devices.

While boys tend to bully at a higher rate than girls, Roberts-Pittman said that girls cyberbully others at a higher rate than boys.

She advised that parents should talk to their children about cyberbullying. If a child is being cyberbullied, they should keep copies of the messages, which are date and time stamped. The parent should contact the other child's parent.

"In cyberbullying you do want to be advocates for your kids," she said.

In one study of middle school students, Roberts-Pittman said one in four students said they had been cyberbullied. In a 2009 study, one in five students said they sent explicit photos, which is also known as sexting.

Roberts-Pittman said educators must acknowledge that it is occurring in their schools. Then they must assess the prevalence such as through an anonymous survey. Teachers, staff and students must be educated on cyberbulling and what it means.

"A school-wide approach is the most successful," she said. "Schools need to adopt a culture of safety that this will not be tolerated."

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Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/837009921_T6yKf-D.jpg

Cutline: Dave Emmert, lead counsel of the Indiana School Board Association, speaks about recent educational court rulings during the 35th annual Bayh College of Education Law Conference. ISU Photo/ Tony Campbell