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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Cyber-bullying best handled at local level

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That was a perfectly understandable letter Bill Nelson wrote to a U.S. Senate committee this week, seeking, as he said, “that we consider addressing the issue of cyberbullying more immediately ... .”

Florida’s senior senator was struck by the case of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick, the Lakeland girl driven to suicide by relentless cyber attacks from about 15 other kids. She was subjected to a sustained barrage of hate-filled text messages that ridiculed her looks and even asked, “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca jumped to her death in an abandoned cement plant.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013 is in committee now, where the website GovTrack.us gives it a 1 percent chance of being enacted. That’s where Nelson’s letter came in. The Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions is considering broader legislation related to No Child Left Behind, and it is basically getting nowhere.

Nelson wants the committee to address cyberbullying separately.

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Anything that puts more light on that issue is good. Like I said, Nelson’s concern is understandable. But if the good senator is saying there ought to be a law, well, there already is. In fact, there are plenty of them.

Like many states, Florida already has legal prohibitions against this type of behavior, and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is investigating to see if they apply in this case.

The proposal before the Senate would require an independent federal evaluation every two years of anti-bullying policies in elementary and secondary schools. Basically, they would collect a lot of statistics and issue a report.

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I suspect it would say the same thing virtually every time: There will always be kids who are mean and take delight in hurting and humiliating other kids. But where a victim could at least find sanctuary once the school day ended, the Internet has given bullies ways to take their carnage directly into the target’s home.

The explosion in messaging and social media sites has also made it harder for even diligent parents to keep up. Obviously, it’s a major issue.

The Hillsborough County School District already has a seven-page anti-bullying policy, with specifics on what qualifies as bullying or harassment — including cyber messages. It spells out the consequences, provides a way to report abuse, and it mandates parent notification.

That’s the best way to combat this problem, not that any way is perfect.

We have seen too many stories of cyber brutes, or seen too many videos of hooligans showering punches on a helpless kid. Then you hear about the girl in Lakeland, and if that doesn’t make you angry, nothing will.

So I don’t blame Bill Nelson for wanting to help. We all want to help.

But the local schools, communities and families are still best equipped to handle something like this. They are the ones who see the problem and consequences up close, and they already have the law on their side.

Good intentions aside, I’m not sure how layering more bureaucratic demands on the schools to feed the federal appetite for data would help anything.

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