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The law was passed by the legislature at the end of the legislative session in June, and signed by Governor Cuomo. It requires schools to take more responsibility for stopping the online harassment of students known as cyber bullying. They’ll have to set up protocols to make it easier for students and their parents to report online harassment, and devise ways to stop the bullies from striking again. School districts will have to develop bullying prevention strategies, and publicize them.
Cuomo says the state has to do all it can to ensure that children feel “safe in the classroom,” and he says schools need to take some responsibility. “It's amazing to me the power of the negativity and how it can hurt a young person,” Cuomo said.
The new law is an amendment to the Dignity for All Students law approved in 2010 by then Governor David Paterson. Paterson, the state’s first legally blind governor, said he was bullied at school as a child. Schools are already getting ready for the first law, and will now start developing protocol for the anti-cyber bullying measure.
“Our schools for some time have been trying to ensure that are children are safe,” said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State school Boards Association.. “They didn’t necessarily need a law to tell them what we are sadly seeing on the front pages of our newspapers.” Worona says schools welcome both laws, and hope they will help to change a culture that for too long did not react to bullying.
Research has shown links between cyberbullying and low self esteem, academic problems, depression and, in some highly publicized cases, suicide. Cyber-bullying includes harassing text messages, and negative social media and web postings to a broad audience of the student’s peers, and strangers. Worona says it’s a far more insidious form of bullying than the days of the school yard bully, which he says was in some ways more straight forward to deal with.
“It’s anonymous,” said Worona. “And kids have a way of being extremely devious.” It’s estimated that nearly one third of school aged children between 12 and 18 are bullied at some point in school, and 16% of New York State students have been victims of cyberbullying off of school property.
However, the new law stops short of making cyber bullying an actual crime. Many forms of harassment associated with cyber bullying are already covered under existing law. Governor Cuomo says making online bullying a criminal act is a separate topic that may need to be addressed, but it’s complicated.
“Do you really want to put a 14-year-old in jail for a relatively mild case of bullying?” asks Cuomo, who says there does need to be a “conversation” about criminalizing some forms of cyber bullying in the future. Schools are required under the new law to work with police if they think existing laws against harassment may have been broken. Worona says the school’s jurisdiction is limited in many cases to incidences that occur on school property, and he says case law is developing as more efforts are made to crack down on cyber bullying.
The changes won’t have an effect on the new school year that begins in September. They are required to be in place by July of 2013 and will take effect the following school year.