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Pinellas schools take aim at cyberbullies

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Published:   |   Updated: July 30, 2013 at 09:02 PM

LARGO - School bullies might think they can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, but districts are rapidly changing policy to allow administrators to punish cyberbullies with detention or in-school suspension.

On Tuesday, the Pinellas County School Board voted to hold a public hearing on changes to the school district's bullying policy that would let schools punish students for cyberbullying that happens on or off campus. The change comes as a result of a state-wide mandate for districts to update their bullying and harassment policies.

Under the revised policy, cyberbullying would be defined as a "bullying and harassment offense" and include any electronic communications, whether by computer or other technology, that causes a student "public or private humiliation."

The change comes after changes to to the state's 2008 anti-bullying law that gives school administrators authority to punish students for cyberbullying, regardless of where it takes place, if the bullying substantially disrupts the education process.

Pinellas School Board Attorney David Koperski said the policy changes don't necessarily signify a change in practice, or challenge student's First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, but they do make the bullying laws "more complete."

"It codifies our already existing ability to reach beyond the four walls of a school building and reach a student who might be cyberbullying another student at their home on social media or the Internet and, under certain conditions, regulate that speech," Koperski said.

Hillsborough and Pasco counties have already changed their bullying policies to reflect the new legislation.

The policy's success will depend on school administrators, who determine when to get involved in a case of online bullying, said Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of the national anti-bullying organization Stomp Out Bullying.

Florida's anti-bullying legislation is among the best in the nation, Ellis said, but her organization continues to be inundated with phone calls from parents and students. That's a sign that it doesn't matter how strong a state's legislation is if schools don't enforce the policies, she said.

"My feeing is, it's your student, so no matter where your student is, if they're cyberbullying one of your other students, you need to step in," Ellis said. "To be very honest with you, most schools across the nation are doing nothing, sweeping it under the rug, hiding behind their legislation, so it's open season for any kid that's a bully."

Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego said parents and students will be made aware of the changes and be required to sign a document saying they've read the updated code of conduct policy. The school district also will reach out to the PTA and other partner organizations to make sure students know there are "caring adults on campus to help address problems.''

Also Tuesday, the School Board held its first public hearing on the proposed $1.2 billion budget for the next fiscal year. With little discussion, board members gave preliminary approval to a tax rate of $8.06 per $1,000 of taxable value, a small decline from the current rate of $8.30 per $1,000.

Though the tax rate would drop slightly, the district still would bring in about $2 million more in local property taxes than in the current year because the local tax base grew by about 3.4 percent. The proposed tax rate would raise about $471 million; this year's tax rate brought in $469 million.

The final public hearing on the budget and tax rate is scheduled for Sept. 10.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

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