'For The Children' Cyberbullying Law Running Into Opposition From Groups Actually Concerned About Children
from the making-it-all-so-much-worse dept
A Texas cyberbullying law is running into unexpected opposition. The law [PDF], which would criminalize any "electronic harassment or bullying" of anyone under the age of 18, is intended to give schools more resources to deal with cyberbullying. Of course, the law would also extend schools' reach beyond the confines of the campus, allowing them to take control of off-campus behavior.
It's one thing if this was limited to disciplinary action by the school. It still would be an extension of government power, but at least the damage done would be limited to in-school punishments. (That's still a significant amount of damage, considering school disciplinary actions cover things like extended suspensions and expelling students -- neither of which do much to alter troubled students' futures in any positive way.)
Turning this into a criminal act means schools will become even more instrumental in routing students into juvenile detention centers and local jails. This is what has advocates for the health and safety of children concerned.
Will Francis, the government relations director for Texas’ National Association of Social Workers, doesn’t necessarily think schools should be working so closely with the police. Instead, he said, the bill should focus on improving mental health resources in schools to address bullying before it becomes criminal.
“My concern is that we’ll just be sticking more kids with felonies,” said Francis, who says he's been advising Menendez on the bill’s focus. “I worry we’ll see more schools in poorer, non-white areas using hard and fast punitive criminal justice as a solution.”
As schools have come to rely more and more on SROs (Student/School Resource Officers), the tendency has been to hand over almost every disciplinary matter to campus law enforcement officers. Routine student misconduct is being addressed with arrests, deployments of force, and prosecutors bringing criminal charges against students for behavior that previously would have resulted in detention, suspension, or a long conversation between administrators and the student's parents.
Right now, Texas schools are employing twice as many police officers as counselors, according to numbers obtained by the San Antonio Current. The disciplinary playing field is already slanted towards law enforcement. Turning bullying into criminal activity makes this ratio more harmful. If the state has a desire to produce better students, this law isn't going to help it achieve its goal. If it's more interested in creating a new (and profitable) set of criminals, this expansion of power will definitely help that dream come true.
It's not just the lack of resources for mental health issues that's a problem. It's also the overreach itself. As the EFF points out, giving schools jurisdiction over students' off-campus activities infringes on their Constitutional rights.
“We believe — and most courts agree — that schools are very limited when it comes to punishing off-campus student speech,” [EFF attorney David] Greene said. Student speech is still protected by free speech laws, regardless of how cruel and unusual it is — especially when they’re off-campus.
"There’s no rule in the First Amendment for speech that causes harm for a minor,” he said. “If they want to pass these protections, it will have to fit within current laws.”
While there is definitely much to be done to address student bullying -- and there's no denying this has become easier and more prevalent with the rise of multiple social media platforms -- the solutions lie in better resources for bullied students and those who engage in bullying. While the outcome of sustained bullying sometimes results in truly horrific tragedies (as is the case here), criminalizing this behavior will only result in a greater number of destroyed futures.
The law -- which is still in its proposal stage -- promises to do both: criminalize off-campus behavior and bring in more resources to help schools deal with bullying. But it gives school resource officers subpoena power to unmask anonymous social media users and, due to the criminalization of the act, encourages schools to rely more on law enforcement and less on counseling or diversion programs for perpetrators that may allow them to turn themselves around and contribute positively in their new environments.