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Sticks and stones 2.0: Debating the causes of cyberbullying

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - "In the beginning, most of it was on the internet. On Facebook, Youtube, AIM," 14-year-old Sidney Wilhelm said, sitting with her parents at the Webster Groves St. Louis Bread Company on a recent Saturday morning.

"You got texts," her mother added. "Calls in the middle of the night."

Sidney and her parents, Michelle and Chris Wilhelm of Webster Groves, are used to telling this story. Thirteen months after Sidney says her classmates began to target her on the internet, their personal experience with cyberbullying extends beyond the cyberworld. Through a series of events that has so far climaxed with Sidney's anxiety attack and a police report, the family has joined a frequently heated discussion among schools, parents, legislators and community activists.

"We've basically been around the horn on everything -- to the schools, law enforcement, I've been to Jefferson City to meet with representatives, Michelle and Sidney went down and spoke just a week and a half ago. We've pretty much done the circuit now. The resounding message is, 'Bullying's been around forever, I've heard worse. [It's] 'point, point, point; your fault, your fault,' rather than 'We have a responsibility in this too,'" Chris Wilhelm said.

When St. Louis Junior League members Susan Schenberg and Diane Kerckhoff heard the Wilhelms' story, they encouraged them to get involved with the league's anti-bullying campaign. As heads of the legislative issues committee, they distributed surveys to 12 area public school districts, a common method of "taking the temperature" of a certain school. They compiled a research fact sheet and began to write a position paper on their findings.

"We found huge differences. Some (schools) were doing nothing, (while) some were actually accomplishing their goals," Schenberg said.

On April 5, the Missouri House of Representatives Education Committee heard three bills calling for stricter anti-bullying laws on school campuses. Along with House Bill 273, the committee heard testimony for HB 460, sponsored by Springfield Democrat Sara Lampe, and HB 829, sponsored by Nixa Republican Ray Weter. A modified combination version of all three now awaits a vote in the Senate as SB 147, which covers a lot of education issues.

The Missouri School Boards' Association has had the term "cyber bullying" in its suggested policy guidelines since 2008. If the legislation goes through, all schools will be required by law to have a policy formalized by August 2012.

Not everyone thinks further legislation will change youth's reality. Cathy Vespereny of the Webster Groves School District said: "We have programs in place; we're looking to improve the programs. Is there room for improvement? Always. But when there is an issue, we address it and discipline."

Questions of accountability and responsibility loom over arguments about who has jurisdiction over cyberspace. The reasons people fear cyber-bullying as more dangerous -- its anonymity, pervasiveness, range and speed -- are also often the reasons it is hard to address. For schools, the fluid boundaries between school grounds and the outside world can impede enforcement. Parents call full-time monitoring difficult, if not impossible, when their children are away from home. Law enforcement must both define and defend their interpretations of line between public and private communications. 

Even some of those calling for stricter legislation, such as Morgan Keenan of the Safe Schools Coalition, agree that the vague language needs to be strengthened through legislation. But he says the bill does not go far enough. Keenan testified in Jefferson City on April 5 in favor of HB 460. This bill calls for legislation with enumerated categories, identifying lists of protected classes of student around race, gender, ability, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

"In the state of Missouri, that is a big problem because if a teacher wants to talk about bullying and starts to talk about some of these reasons, they can be in fear of being fired. ... It is often perceived that if they talk about some of the major reasons young people are bullied -- for instance homophobia or sexism -- somebody would be upset," Keenan said.

Enumeration did not make it into the final version of the House Bill. Schenberg says legislators were hesitant to endorse a clause that "doesn't protect all children," inadvertently leaving someone out. Rep. Lampe has proposed enumeration under various headings since 2008, citing success in 13 other states. 

"Especially when it comes to cyber bullying, we're not talking about the reasons young people aren't being bullied in the first place, we're just talking about the techniques," Keenan said. "There are so many times when we talk about youth like they're not here, and they don't have a voice to speak up for themselves. Like a minority group. I think it's really important that as we talk about legislation that we hear from young people and hear what's really going on."

Ariana Tobin, a student at Washington University, is an intern at the Beacon.