Sexting, social media, and cyberbullying were the hottest of the hot education legal topics discussed by Sonja Trainor, an NSBA senior staff attorney, at a preconference session of the T+L conference Tuesday in Phoenix.
Several years ago, school leaders and educators asked why they needed to be concerned with cyberbullying, especially if it occurs off-campus, Trainor said. These days, no one asks that question. Cyberbullying lawsuits have resulted in school districts paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to plaintiffs and in legal fees.
Schools forming cyberbullying policies should look to their states’ anti-bullying laws. Forty-five states have such laws on the books, although many don’t have separate cyberbullying laws.
Cyberbullying is defined as bullying plus technology, said Trainor. It must be intentional, repeated, aggressive, or unwanted behavior with a power imbalance.”Your definition should start with state bullying policy, but your district policy must define bullying, taking in the state and federal laws and community input,” she said.
Many federal laws apply to bullying and cyberbullying as well, she said, including the Safe Schools Act, the Electronics Communication Privacy Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the First and Fourth Amendment all of which need to be taken into account when considering policies.
Schools are in a particularly hard place legally with regard to cyberbullying: “You could be sued by the perpetrator or the victim,” said Trainor. “You can get it from either side.”
Sixteen states are considering some form of sexting laws. Sexting, which means to forward sexually explicit images of oneself or peers via text messaging, is considered normal among preteens and teens, said Trainor.
To prevent texting and the legal problems that come with it, it’s important to reach out to the community to get members involved with the procedures the district has in place to deal with such behavior. It’s also important to document prevention efforts, said Trainor.
“Make it clear to students that [inappropriate images] should be deleted immediately. Don’t hold it on your phone,” said Trainor. That also goes for the adults, too. She cited a recent case where an administrator was prosecuted because he was found with phone images that he had saved in a student case.
In social media cases, Trainor recommended that districts have staff members who are fluent in the different varieties of social media: Facebook, Myspace, Xanga, Twitter, etc.
Acceptable use policies can be the key to being on solid legal footing with technology use and the law. A good acceptable use policy, said Trainor:
Provides notice of the extent the district will monitor technology and network use.
Establishes a clear expectation of proper use.
Makes clear that district will conduct and cooperate with investigations.
Makes it understood that the district is not liable for improper use.
Requires students and parents to sign the policy.
“You are on much better footing” with such a policy, said Trainor.
Trainor’s presentation, along with a list of resources and sample policies, is available at www.nsba.org/tln.