Outside editorial: Mean kids online

Posted: Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Mean girls - and mean boys - have been terrorizing their classmates since the first schoolhouse was built. Recently, however, teachers and administrators have adopted elaborate programs to prevent and punish such cruelty. Now that trend is colliding with another one: bullying online. School administrators across the nation are trying to rein in cyber-bullying, and some judges have been ruling against the crackdowns. The judges are right.

We feel for the Beverly Hills, Calif., eighth-grader who complained that she had been described as "spoiled," a "brat" and a "slut" in a YouTube video posted by a classmate. But sympathetic school officials went too far in suspending the girl who produced the video. Punishing the student for behavior outside the school was illegal, wrote U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, "without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school's activities."

It isn't just students who are targeted by the online equivalent of "slam books," the notebooks furtively passed around playgrounds in previous generations in which children inscribed insults about their classmates. In Pennsylvania, a student was suspended and shifted to an alternative education program because he posted a parody MySpace profile that described his principal, among other insults, as a "big steroid freak" and a "big whore." A U.S. district judge lifted the suspension, saying that non-disruptive online speech couldn't be punished even if the offensive material could be accessed on school computers.

Public schools rightly prevent students from insulting one another in the classroom, where even verbal disputes can interfere with a lesson, or elsewhere on school grounds, where conflicts can undermine discipline and order. But traditionally they haven't sought to extend discipline to cover conduct outside school hours. The new wrinkle created by cyber-bullying doesn't alter that practical division of labor between teachers and parents.

Schools aren't hermetically sealed off from what students do at home. A teenager who assaults a classmate on the street and is taken into police custody obviously won't be treated at school the way his classmates are - assuming he's allowed back into school. And some forms of online harassment cross a bright legal line between speech and making threats, whether the victim learns about them from the classroom computer, her BlackBerry or voicemail.

The advent of the Internet has eroded an endless number of formerly clear distinctions, including those based on physical location. Still, educators should recognize the reasonable limits of their authority and confine their discipline to girls and boys who are mean to one another - or to their principal - at school.

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