As a new school year opens, the pressure for school administrators to provide a safe, harassment-free environment in school and to address cyberbullying threats that often occur off school property is greater than ever.
Educators no longer have only a moral responsibility to address bullying threats and "virtual assaults" against students, but a very clear legal duty.
"There's a real change in our responsibilities," said Andrew J. Freedman, a school legal expert with the Hodgson Russ law firm.
Freedman was one of many panelists and speakers who addressed about 240 school administrators, mental health professionals, educators, law enforcement and community representatives Wednesday at a daylong cyberbullying conference presented by the University at Buffalo's Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention.
The conference was held only a day after the one-year anniversary of the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, the Williamsville North High School freshman who posted videos and blog entries regarding his struggles as a bullied gay student and whose story sent shockwaves across the nation.
Because so many local educators listed cyberbullying as their top concern, conference organizers decided to make it the theme of this year's conference at the Millennium Hotel in Buffalo, said Director Amanda Nickerson.
This school year marks the first year the state's Dignity for All Students Act goes into effect. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has also signed a cyberbullying amendment to the law that takes effect next school year. In both cases, the laws call for stronger training, monitoring, identification and response to instances of bullying and harassment in schools and online.
Freedman said if school administrators receive notice that a bullying incident occurred and subsequently do nothing, they could open themselves to accusations of negligence. Schools are also obligated to involve the police if administrators believe a crime has occurred, such as aggravated harassment.
Speakers and panelists offered constructive approaches to dealing with the issue.
"I wanted to encourage them," said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, who offered a broad overview of the research and frequency of bullying, and some legal case studies, before focusing much of his presentation on prevention methods.
Cyberbullying is less about technology and more about how to improve a school climate so that a sense of belonging, peer respect, school spirit and positive relationships between teachers and students diminish the likelihood of bullying, Hinduja said.
He and other school administrators talked about ways to give students more ownership over the bullying issue and empowering students to develop a positive message "instead of naturally assuming they'll do the worst with technology."
Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services with the Buffalo Public Schools, said students often come up with creative ways to let others know that they're not alone and they won't be silent.
"We seem to take the fun out of a lot of things," he said, speaking of school administrators. "It's completely unnecessary, even though we're dealing with a serious topic."
Several speakers pointed out that educators' hands are not tied when harassment occurs off school property. If the bullying ultimately has an impact on a student's performance and sense of safety at school, administrators have the authority to act, they said.
They also answered questions regarding the issue of "sexting" - sending sexually suggestive or explicit images, typically via cellphone. This type of issue is particularly difficult for administrators to address because images of children under 18 - even if taken by underage minors with full consent - can be classified as child pornography, which can result in serious felony charges to anyone who views them, including investigating adults.
Whether such incidents should be reported to the police, where criminal charges could be filed and lead to kids being labeled sexual predators, is a dilemma for administrators. New York State tends to take a less aggressive criminal approach toward these instances than other states, Freedman said, but the issue requires delicate handling and thought-out policy-making by school leaders.
The Cyberbullying Research Center offers numerous resources for parents, teens and educators at www.cyberbullying.us