Writing Sample: Cyberbullying on Long Island

The online harassment of a South Setauket teen near the start of the 2010-2011 school year is the only cyberbullying case to cross the desk of the Three Village Central School District Interim Superintendent, but frightening nationwide statistics on cyberbullying are sparking new laws and regulations demanding school districts help fight this issue.

Cyberbullying is the use of electronic means to harass, threaten or target an individual, usually a minor. The topic continues to get national attention most notably ever since the March 2010 suicide of West Islip teen Alexis Pilkington. Pilkington’s suicide was linked to anonymous harassment of the 17- year- old on the popular website, formspring.me – an online outlet where people answer questions posed by anonymous users.

The online abuse of Pilkington and the South Setauket teen, who was bullied through the same website as Pilkington, are not isolated incidents, by any means. Cyberbullying, while difficult to quantify on the local level, affects about one in five middle school students in the United States, as suggested by a recent 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center. Other similar studies including one from STOMP Out Bullying, a national anti-bullying and cyber-bullying program, say upwards of 40 to 45 percent of all children in the US are affected by bullying on the Internet, while six out of 10 children don’t tell their parents of the abuse.

Three Village, among many other Long Island School Districts, deals with any instance of cyberbullying on a case by case basis.

However, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is proposing new regulations that would force schools that receive funding for Internet equipment and service under the FCC’s E-Rate program to educate students on this nationwide issue. This would affect most schools across the country. The FCC has the ability to make these requirements because of one basic principle. “If the government gives money to schools, it can require schools to take certain steps in education,” Hofstra Law Professor Leon Friedman said. “No steps, no money.”

Lederer said any time the government issues unfunded requirements, it can be difficult. “But, in this case, the greater good outweighs the manner in which the requirements may be perceived,” Lederer said.

Carle Place Superintendent Dave Flatley was not surprised to hear of the proposed FCC regulations. “As educational institutions, schools have a mission to teach certain widely accepted values such as honesty, respect and responsibility.” With regards to Three Village, Lederer said anti-bullying efforts need to involve more than just the school. “The school keeps taking on the responsibility of parenting and in some cases that’s warrented, but overall, the parents need to be more aware of what their children are doing,” Lederer said.

Some school districts aren’t waiting for regulations to be imposed on them. The Great Neck Public School District is one of these districts already one step ahead of the FCC and a few steps ahead of Three Village. “We would already be in compliance with that new [FCC] E-Rate provision,” Great Neck District Technology Director Marc Epstein said. The Great Neck district addresses the issue of cyberbullying through its Internet Safety Curriculum, taught in grades K through 12.

Three Village has not yet implemented an anti-cyberbullying program like Great Neck. In fact, there is not even a district-wide anti-bullying program. Instead, bullying is simply emphasized through character education. Each school in Three Village has a person responsible for character education programs. It is through these programs and occasional workshops that Three Village informs students and the community about the negative effects of bullying. Lederer mentioned he is not aware of what attendance at these workshops is like. “The district has to formalize an anti-bullying program so there is better consistency throughout the K through 12 program,” Lederer said. “If I’m here next year, it’s one of the things I’d like to do.”

Under the Acts of Dignity, a law passed by the New York State legislature back in June, the school district will be required to get a formal anti-bullying program in place by July of 2012.

One of the aforementioned character education programs Three Village takes part in is Rachel’s Challenge. Named after the first victim of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 Rachel Scott, the program “…exists to inspire, equip and empower every person to create a permanent positive culture change in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion,” according to the mission statement of the challenge.

The Oyster-Bay East Norwich Central School District uses Rachel’s Challenge for character development as well and has seen positive results. “We are a small, close knit community that displays and remarkable level of tolerance and compassion towards one another,” Media Communications Specialist for Oyster Bay-East Norwich schools Tom Gould said. “I would be naïve to think that there are no instances of bullying however, cyber or otherwise, but I can say that it is not rampant.”

Going forward, the issue of bullying, with an emphasis on cyberbullying will continue to be a hot topic – especially as local school districts continue to figure out their role in all of this. While 44 states already have laws against cyberbullying, New York does not and Lederer is hoping this changes.

“Cyberbullying should be made a criminal offense of the airwaves,” Lederer said. “Kids have lost their lives over this nonsense and it’s got to be dealt with.”

NOTE: This was first written back in 2010 and now serves as a sample of my writing. While the facts are still 99% true, there may be a few minor discrepancies now that it’s been a year since the article was written.

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