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Friday, February 21, 2014 - 1:09pm

Georgia Kids Can Easily Fall Victim To Cyberbullying

Back in the day, bullies operated in the schoolyard.

When they got the internet, they were able to operate pretty much anywhere; and in Georgia, schools' hands are often tied when it comes to cracking down on them.

Georgia is one of the 32 states that do not have a specific law against cyberbullying. That means, there is a loophole for cyberbullies to get away with what they do, especially if they find their victims outside the school.

In many ways, Georgia was a trailblazer when it came to passing laws against bullying. In 1999, Georgia became the first state to introduce any kind of anti-bullying legislation. Other states followed suit, and by now, every state except Montana has at least some kind of anti-bullying regulation on the books.

Georgia’s bullying law also gets very high marks from anti-bullying organizations., which monitors bullying laws in all 50 states, gives Georgia its highest grade: A++. Only 13 states were rated that highly.

However, passing any specific cyberbullying legislation has never gained full traction in Georgia.

The current law bans bullying only if it’s done on school-owned computers, or school computer networks and software. On personal computers or devices, it’s very much a free-for-all where bullies can often do almost whatever they want.

Not that state legislators haven’t tried to pass legislation against cyberbullying.

They have proposed at least two specific cyberbullying laws, including a House bill titled “The End to Cyberbullying Act,” but both bills have been stuck in legislative committees for at least a year. The reason: cyberbullying becomes a hot potato issue when the bully and the victim are not physically in school.

“It’s not that we are falling behind other states,” says Jeff Hodges, an education and administration specialist for student safety at Georgia Department of Education. “Legislators are concerned about what is the schools’ responsibility when bullying happens outside their jurisdictions.”

Hodges said that regulating the cyberbullying that happens outside schools enters a free speech territory, so it’s legally a gray area where it’s not clear what schools – or anyone else - are allowed to do.

Some other states don’t see it that way. 18 states have passed specific cyberbullying laws, and 13 states have laws to penalize students for off-campus behavior that affects the educational process in school.

Both traditional bullying and cyberbullying are clearly a problem. According to an annual study by Georgia’s Department of Education, about 15% of students in grades 6 - 12 say they have been victims of traditional bullying at some point in the last 30 days; and 2% of students said they have been bullied each day in those 30 days.

When it comes to cyberbullying, 24% of students in the same grades nationwide said they have been cyberbullied at one point or another; 16% of students admitted they have cyberbullied someone, according to Cyberbullying Research Center.

And that could be just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Patricia Agatston, who co-authored the book Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, estimates that victims report only up to one-third of cyberbullying that actually happens.

"Kids try to handle it on their own, because they are afraid their parents will overreact and make things even worse," Agatston said on GPB’s program, On the Story. "(Victims) are also concerned about retaliation by bullies, and they are afraid the parents will take their technology away from them, which would isolate them from their peers".

The department of education study also suggests that traditional bullying peaks in the 6th grade, but gradually declines later. By the 12th grade, it’s down by about two-thirds compared to 6th-grade levels.

Research also shows that consequences of bullying can be very serious. Bullying is not only linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among the victims, but it also seems to become a long-term habit for the bullies.

About 60% of boys who are classified as bullies in grades six to nine, will be convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24, according to study by anti-bullying group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

The Harvard School of Health research concluded that male bullies are four times more likely to physically and sexually abuse their female partners later in life.

Cyberbullying Bills in the Works

Despite the free speech concerns, the push to legislate cyberbullying is not over. Rep. Keisha Waites (D – Atlanta), who says she was a victim of bullying as a child, has proposed legislation that would partly take a crack at the problem.

One of her bills went into the House Education Committee in late January, and would ban bullying on personal electronic devices if the victim and the perpetrator are physically at school or on school buses.

The bill does not touch cyberbullying outside those areas, but Rep. Waites told GPB that she may expand the bill to include more cyberbullying provisions.

Her bill would also expand the definition of bullying, because she says the current law does not cover enough of the abuse that’s primarily emotional, but not necessarily physical.

“If someone calls a child a faggot every day, that’s also bullying,” says Rep. Waites.

Her bill would also require schools to report how many students are penalized for bullying every year; it would require more training for teachers to recognize bullying; it would apply to private and charter schools, not just public ones; and it would, for the first time, introduce community service as penalty for bullying.

Currently, the most severe punishment for bullies is transfer to an alternative school. That penalty is mandatory for students who commit three offenses in a single school year.

Rep. Pam Dickerson (D – Conyers) is working on another cyberbullying bill that would address free speech issues.

She told GPB that she is working with Georgia Bureau of Investigation and prosecutors to make sure the bill does not step on the first amendment rights. Her legislation has not been submitted yet, but Rep. Dickerson said she may try to push it in this legislative session if there is enough time.

Proposed Solutions to Bullying

Some experts think that legislating is not the only way to go when it comes to dealing with cyberbullying.

“ I question how much legislation can help,” said Holli Levinson, director of the Anti-Defamation League/Southeast Region. “We need more education, not only legislation”.

By “education”, she means training teachers to see the red flags for bullying and teaching kids to use technology more responsibly.

She also said there is one more thing that adults can do: set an example.

“When you see a bad kid behavior, there is often a bad adult behavior involved,” she said. “Why would kids do anything different than what they see?”

Another solution is working with internet and wireless companies to remove cyberbullying content from their service or sites. Levinson said that service providers were generally willing to work with the Anti-Defamation League when it raised concerns about bullying in the past.

Many experts also say that bystanders hold the key in the fight against both traditional bullying and cyberbullying.

“More than half of bullying stops in ten seconds when someone intervenes,” said Levinson. She added that bystanders don’t even have to physically confront bullies; in many cases, just words are enough.

Dr. Patricia Agatston said two types of children generally become bullies. One type includes the kids who have problems at home, which contributes to those kids becoming bullies.

The second type are the “popular” kids, who often have the sense of entitlement and feel they are above the rules. Those bullies target their victims because that improves their social standing among their peers.

Some experts also said that, at the end of the day, bullies should not be ostracized.

Doug Shipman, Chief Executive Officer of National Center for Civil and Human Rights, says that it is counterproductive to keep bullies excluded after they’ve changed their behavior.

He said when everything is said and done, it’s about inclusion… for everyone.

GPB’s program On the Story featured panel discussion on bullying on Feb. 18, 2014



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