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While some legislatures have taken steps to address cyberbullying, school administrators still are grappling with their role in curbing cyberbullying that occurs off campus.

Some schools have implemented anti-bullying programs and social-emotional development curricula and used anti-bullying applications, such as anonymous reporting tools.

Lawmakers have responded with legislation that specifically takes aim at teasing texts or digital rumor-mongering. Education leaders are striving to craft a more holistic approach, embracing programs intended to make school a more welcoming place.

And technology itself is being harnessed for good, creating anonymous tip lines and keeping provocative photos from going viral with a single keystroke.

However, those on the front lines say they are still left to grapple with other vexing questions: When cyberbullying occurs off campus, do schools have the authority to discipline students? When is this an issue for parents, the principal or law enforcement? And how best to balance a safe school environment without bumping up against freedom of speech?

“Until the Supreme Court takes up this issue, the law still lags behind the reality of how we live,” said Francisco Negron, chief counsel for the National Association of School Boards.

The danger of online taunts blipped onto the nation’s radar screen in 2006, with the heartbreaking story of Megan Meir, a Missouri middle school student who engaged in a flirtatious exchange with a fictitious boy on a social media site. (The perpetrator turned out to be a mother of a classmate). When the postings turned ugly, Megan hanged herself.

What followed were a roster of victims — Phoebe Prince, Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer and, most recently, Amanda Todd — that seemed to quickly turn adolescent viciousness from private heartbreak to a major public health issue, which parents ranked alongside obesity and drug abuse.

Estimates vary, but according to the Cyberbullying Research Center approximately 20 percent of students admitted to cyberbullying others in their lifetimes. Posting mean or hurtful comments and spreading rumors online were the most commonly types of cyberbullying they reported.

The nastiness seems to peak during the tween and early teen years, when today’s best friend can be tomorrow’s sworn enemy, and kids lack the maturity to distinguish petty banter from actual threats. Few tell their parents, because they are embarrassed or fear they will lose their phones or computer privileges.

“Vulnerable targets are usually chosen because they represent a despised group, based on race, religion, sexual preference, ethnicity or special needs,” said Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “To get at bullying, you really need to get at bias.”

While Illinois has not been directly linked to any cyberbullying deaths, some cases have drawn police involvement. In 2010, two 13-year-old students at Emerson Middle School in Park Ridge set up a fraudulent Facebook page, purportedly hosted by the victim and containing derogatory comments about her.

Continue reading how schools work to curb cyberbullying.

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