In school or out, bullying to be punished
If a classmate tweets something nasty about you during English class, that's a sure-fire ticket to the principal's office. But come Jan. 1, a harassing Facebook comment posted on a Saturday could just as easily land that student in the hot seat on Monday morning.
At the start of the new year, it won't matter where or when a student bullied another; school districts will be able to take action against bullying, specifically cyberbullying, on all fronts.
In August, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation into law that will allow schools to discipline students for any type of electronic bullying that causes a disruption to the school day.
The new law will expand on the current one, which bans students from online bullying when they are inside a school or using district-owned technology. School districts will also be required to update their disciplinary policies to address any and all types of bullying that cause an interruption to school operations.
Some area schools, private (Judah Christian) and public (Champaign Central), have already adapted to this new requirement by tackling inappropriate social media behavior on a case-by-case basis. But most will have to make adjustments to allocate for changes.
For example, at Tuscola High School, administrators and faculty are working on developing a new approach to reporting incidents of bullying.
In January, the school will launch an online forum that allows students and parents to anonymously share harassment or bullying experiences with the principal, social worker and guidance counselors in a discreet way. The forum, which will be called an Issue Awareness Report, will be on the high school's website, and people can choose whether they want to remain anonymous or share their name.
Tuscola's school social worker, Katie Hatfield, said officials would prefer that those who report incidents shared their name so she and the counselors could follow up quickly, but a name will not be required. Anyone filling out the form will have to answer specific questions — when and where an incident occurred, who knows about it, who was involved and whether the bullying was physical, emotional or threatening. As with revealing one's identity, listing contact information will be optional as well, she said.
"The forum is a good way for people to share information and let us know what is going on without us having to get it second-hand. If we know about what is happening, we can more easily address it," Hatfield said. "We are starting it in January — partially because of the new law, but mostly because it is the right thing to do. We really try to focus on prevention with issues like this."
Like many, Urbana's school district has a clear bullying policy, but no specific rules about social media behavior outside of the classroom. Those have been dealt with on an individual basis, high school Assistant Principal Travis Courson said. That's why district Superintendent Don Owen plans to devote an entire portion of a school board meeting next month to discussing electronic bullying.
At the board's Dec. 16 meeting, Owen shared recommendations from the district's attorneys about aligning school policies with new laws and spoke specifically about plans to address cyberbullying, saying he would like to conduct a "special policy review at the next board meeting."
While all schools will be required to make rule changes, Armstrong High School Principal Darren Loschen fears the new law may put extra burdens on districts.
"It's really a situation where you would hope schools would deal with bullying, no matter when the harm happens, but if it's happening off school grounds and it's not tied to the school, then there's always the question: Should it be handled by someone else?" he said. "In January if it happens to a student, then we have to look into it more, but we will continue to look at cases like this individually."