Schools grapple with new Illinois anti-cyberbullying law

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State cyberbullying laws are getting complicated.

Officials at the Triad Community Unit School District #2 in Illinois had to backtrack after sending out a letter Jan. 20, alarming parents that a new law went into effect Jan. 1 that could require children to turn over their social media passwords in cases of suspected cyberbullying.

In fact, the law, championed by state Rep. Laura Fine, merely strengthens existing cyberbullying policies, stating that teachers and administrators can take action if a student is cyberbullied off-campus and outside of school hours – and has proof to show it. But while the law gives school administrators more latitude to respond to students subjected to digital harassment, it has also raised new concerns about how far schools can go in demanding access to students’ personal electronic devices.

“Kids are being bullied at home, in their bedroom, through Facebook and text messages,” Fine, a Democrat, told EdScoop. “This law was put in place to make sure that the school environment is a comfortable learning environment.”

Under the new law, parents can take screen shots of their kids’ devices and make a case that the bullying is negatively impacting their education – they come home instead of go to school, or their grades drop – and then school officials can investigate.

In a letter obtained by online magazine Motherboard, Triad school district officials said they have not requested any student passwords – yet.

“Triad has not had an instance when its administrators have felt the need to request passwords for student social media accounts. The Board and administration hope that such a situation will never arise,” according to the letter, released Thursday. “However, we can anticipate situations where we might need to see a social networking site.

“For example, if a student makes threats on social media to harm the school or other students, there may be a cause for an administrator to ask that student to open his or her account or share his or her password, particularly before he/she has the chance to delete the threats.”

Fine said school officials confused her law with another piece of legislation that went into effect in Illinois last year, stating that schools could only request that students share their passwords if there is clear evidence the rules are being violated. But kids don’t have to provide their codes.

Calls made to Triad Superintendent Leigh Lewis were not returned, but she told Motherboard that the district could press charges if a student refuses to hand over a social media password.

“If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords,” said Lewis, whose school district is located near the Missouri border.

Forty-eight states currently have laws on the books that require schools to have some kind of anti-cyberbullying policy in place.

Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said schools are still navigating uncharted waters when it comes to dealing with perpetrators of cyberbullying off-campus.

“When Illinois passed the [2014] law, they were trying to do the right thing and provide protections to students,” he said. But “it’s really how schools interpret and apply that law that we’re really waiting for. It’s been over a year, and I haven’t heard examples of it being applied.”

Patchin added that school officials have to walk a fine line when it comes to protecting students’ privacy while also ensuring they are in a safe environment.

“We don’t want those who would break the law or substantially disrupt the learning environment to hide behind a private online profile,” he said. “There should be accountability, whether by parents or law enforcement or schools.”

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