A new piece of legislation to tackle cyberbullying in schools passed the New York state assembly yesterday. It will become part of the Dignity For All Students Act, 2010, which comes into effect in July. This Act prohibits harassment in schools on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, with the new cyberbullying amendment coming into force next January. It clearly defines “cyberbullying” as “harassment or bullying that occurs through any form of electronic communication”.
This is ground breaking legislation, if only because the laws to protect school children against cyberbullying are imprecise. In the UK, criminal laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, may be used against cyberbullying, and the Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to send “by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. In the US, there is no federal law that requires schools to address bullying, and only 15 states have laws to protect school children against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. It is in need of definition.
The experience of being bullied online is harder to manage, and therefore harder to legislate against. It is indirect and at times anonymous; there is a certain freedom from restraint when compared to physical bullying. Nevertheless, the New York legislation proposes a framework to deal with cyberbullying that is currently lacking. According to a press release, it is designed to “establish protocols to respond to cyberbullying, harassment, bullying and discrimination, including designating a school official to receive and promptly investigate reports; take actions to prevent recurrences; coordinate with law enforcement when appropriate; and develop a bullying prevention strategy; and provide notice to all school community members of the school’s policies. It would also set training requirements for current and new school employees.”
The legislation provides a system to deal with the bullying, and that is what is different about it. The experience of cyberbullying for LGBT youth is, according to the Human Rights Campaign, far higher than the average. The effectiveness of this legislation is something to watch out for, and it is something for other states and countries to learn from.