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Cyber bullying

In recent years, school districts across the country have zeroed in on bullying, stepping into the middle of what was once considered common schoolyard behavior.

Now, a new Missouri law is pushing that effort off campus, placing schools in the midst of the gray area on how to handle the online activities of their students.

The statute, which goes into effect Friday, requires school districts to put the terms "cyber-bullying" and "electronic communications" into their anti-bullying policies, which have been required since 2007.

Advocates hope the measure will help districts focus on behavior that many say is growing more prevalent and can be more harmful than traditional bullying. Some districts that have drafted such policies say changes have made a difference.

But some lawyers say adding the phrases required under the new law won't legally change anything.

"All this statute did was add a couple of words to it to just make sure that schools were covering it," said Robert Useted, an attorney for five school districts in St. Louis County. "It has been my experience that most school districts already had a policy dealing with electronic bullying."

The Missouri School Boards' Association has had the terms cyber-bulling in its suggested school policy for four years now. But Kelli Hopkins, a director for the association, said even without the exact terms, schools could still enforce online bullying.

"Everything that constitutes bullying was already prohibited," Hopkins said, "but when legislators specifically address cyber-bullying, they tell schools that 'we see this as an issue, and we are going to address it.' Nothing legally has changed: philosophically it has changed."

The Lindbergh school district, which added the term "cyber-bullying" to its discipline policies a couple years ago, says problems with online bullying have decreased since the change.

"It has made our staff more aware of what it is," said Chuck Triplett, director of curriculum and student programs at Lindbergh. "We have more of a consistent approach to how we deal with it, and now that all the kids know about it, we see less of it that directly relates to school."

But deciding when schools can discipline for online bullying is something he and other educators are still grappling with.

The Rockwood district is currently working with its attorney to decide what needs to be added to the current policy to bring it up to code. It is also trying to decide how clearly the terms and conditions should be defined.

For instance, how should schools handle a student who bullies another one on his or her computer at home?

Beyond calling for changes to discipline policies, the new law allows school districts to discipline students for off-campus conduct that negatively affects the school environment.

Some say that kind of power raises questions.

"The larger issue is just exactly how extensive is the school districts' authority to a kid who does stuff at their computers at home," said Useted, the education lawyer.

Parkway school district administrators say they will address any bullying that is brought to their attention but only discipline those whose bullying relates specifically to school. But even that seems to be in the gray area. Parkway is waiting to get more direction from the Missouri School Boards' Association before moving forward on incorporating the terms.

But the district has run into the problem before and said this legislation is making officials take another look at how they deal with online bullying.

"Maybe we need to add some more descriptive language or maybe we'll keep it vague and go case-by-case," said Michael Barolak, coordinator of student discipline at Parkway. "But maybe it will be just as simple as adding in the words. That is something the board will have to decide."

The new law for schools comes two years after legislators passed a statewide harassment law that included acts committed via electronic messaging on computers, text messaging and e-mail.

The law was spurred by a Dardenne Prairie teenager, Megan Meier, who took her own life in 2006 after being victim to online bullying.

Since then, at least 45 states have changed harassment laws to include cyber-bullying.

Illinois targeted cyber-bullying in their schools last year and required each one to add Internet safety and cyber-bullying to their curricula.

According to a survey of 1,500 middle school students by I-SAFE, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to protecting youth online, nearly half report being bullied, and more than half admit to saying hurtful or angry things to someone online.

"It really is an issue for kids," said Susan Homes, an assistant superintendent at Collinsville, which has had a cyber-bulling policy since 2005. "We want to get the word out to kids that if they are faced with this, we want to help them."