DES MOINES — Shortly after her brother, Kenneth, took his own life, Kayla Weishuhn of Primghar, Iowa, told a reporter about the Facebook posts and text messages her brother received after he told some classmates he was gay.
“It was pretty bad,” she said.
Such cases of cyberbullying will be a focus of Tuesday’s anti-bullying summit in Des Moines, Gov. Terry Branstad said when he announced the summit earlier this year.
Many states and school districts have been playing catchup as they craft policies to stop students from getting harassed and threatened because they’re seen as different from everybody else.
Iowa’s policy already covers cyberbullying, said Amy Williamson, bureau chief of school improvement for the Iowa Department of Education, because the law covers electronic means of harassment.
“If a student is being bullied by a text message or Facebook or on email — even if it’s not during school hours — if it’s affecting their ability to go to school and get an education, then it does matter, and it needs to get investigated,” she said.
That’s a good start, said Justin Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. He notes the department’s definition allows in-school consequences for out-of-school behavior. It’s a legal precedent established by the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, although not all school systems take such a broad view.
But, Patchin said, the law should really say cyberbullying — in addition to bullying by electronic means — and then define that in order to get the point across.
“The best thing a school district — or a state — can do is make (the anti-bullying policy) clear,” he said. “Schools get sued for not doing enough; schools get sued for doing too much. How can we expect teachers to know what to do if the policy itself is unclear?”
Logic might dictate that with the exponential growth in the use of social media over the past decade, incidents of cyberbullying would see the same sort of growth.
That’s not necessarily the case, at least according to Iowa Youth Survey results from 2005, 2008 and 2010. The survey asks students in grades 6, 8 and 11 about their experiences on topics ranging from drinking and drug use to bullying.
One of the questions asks students how many times in the past 30 days they have received a threatening or hurtful message from another student. The 2008 and 2010 versions of the test specifically ask about email and cellphone texts.
The vast majority of the students report receiving no such messages in the time period, and the percentages hold pretty steady year-over-year. In 2010, 91 percent of all students said they had received no messages in the time period. In 2008, it was 90 percent, and in 2005, it was 93 percent. More females report receiving hurtful or threatening messages than males do.
There is a small group of students (1 percent or 2 percent) at each grade level who reported receiving threatening or hurtful messages 11 or more times in the past 30 days. That percentage has held steady over the years, too.
“The number of bills we’ve seen that are named after children, it takes my breath away,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States who follows bullying policies.
The bills, she said, are typically named after children who have been tormented to the point of suicide. Invariably, they call for stronger anti-bullying measures in schools, and they are pushed by the parents, family and friends of the boy or girl whose name is included in the bill title.
She holds up Delaware, California and North Carolina as examples of states that have strong anti-bullying policies.
California, for example, explicitly lists the type of social media on which students are prohibited from bullying. North Carolina includes teachers in its policy, as in students are prohibited from bullying teachers.
As for Iowa, Zinth gives the state some credit but thinks there is room to improve. Like Patchin, she said “cyberbullying” should be listed and defined in the law.
She also said the law should explicitly state that parents and school staff who witness or suspect bullying must report it. The Iowa law defines a procedure for reporting, but she said, “nowhere does state policy explicitly say that adults who witness or suspect bullying must report such incidents.”
She credits Iowa for having bullying training written into the law but is wary of the clause that says money for training is provided “to the extent that funds are available.” A stronger way, she said, is to do what Massachusetts has done and make the training available at no cost to the district.