State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would expand the rules of school-related bullying. House Bill 45 changes the wording of two existing state laws, the second of which adds "electronic communication" to the definition of harassment, intimidation or bullying.
Rep. Kurt Olson of Soldotna is co-sponsoring the bipartisan bill, which is being reviewed by the Education and Judiciary committees. A handful of additional legislators also have signed on in support of the bill since its introduction.
"I can recall several national incidents where kids have been bullied to the point where they end up committing suicide," Olson said. "Oftentimes, it's over the Internet, either on Facebook or something like it. This simply puts more teeth into an existing statute."
The intent of the law is protecting kids from bullying via digital media, whether that's on the Internet or cell phone texts. The prevalence of cyber-bullying has grown alongside the younger generation of digital natives, kids growing up in the age of the Internet.
Officials have taken notice; the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also will be taking action to change its policy. On Tuesday, Kenai's school resource police officer hosted a digital media presentation for parents.
The school district's bullying policy already included electronic communication, but the school board on Monday considered an updated version of the policy that follows the requirements of the Children's Internet Protection Act. The revised policy puts more focus on cyber-bullying.
Congress enacted the protection act, or CIPA, in 2000 initially to address concerns about kids' access to obscene and harmful content on the Internet. Under CIPA, schools also must educate students about "appropriate online behavior."
"Our school principals have always been proactive about cyber-bullying," said KBPSD spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff via email. "The updated school board policy now addresses cyber-bullying that occurs outside of the school setting and subsequently impacts the learning environment and school climate."
The policy's updated section on cyber-bullying outlines potential Internet "misuses" such as "sending or posting inappropriate email messages, instant messages, text messages, digital pictures" and more. The Alaska Association of School Boards recommended the changes. House Bill 45 simply adds the terms "electronic" and "communication" to an Alaska law.
A paragraph detailing the reporting of bullying was added to the policy as well.
Olson said during the last couple years he's heard from family friends about incidents of Internet bullying. The friends' main concern: the lack of action they could take against the harassment and bullying.
Officer Alex Prins of the Kenai Police Department said bullying at schools occurs on a daily basis, and much of it is the result of someone saying or doing something online. He encourages students to avoid typing online messages while they're angry. During the presentations Prins has given, the students nod their heads at the advice. They know it's a common mistake, he said.
But cyber-bullying is a catch 22, Prins said. Without specific threats, school officials are limited in their prescribed punishments. The new laws may change that situation. Name calling in and of itself still will not be against the law, but incidents of cyber-bullying will follow a stricter procedure if House Bill 45 passes in both legislative bodies.
The single difference between traditional bullying and cyber-bullying, Prins said, "They're just using digital media to do it."
"More and more kids at younger ages are getting online, getting on Facebook," he said, "and they're broadcasting to a much wider audience than just what happens in the school halls. It's on a much larger scale."
Jerzy Shedlock is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.