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Pulling the Plug on Cyberbullies: Should Schools be Responsible for Sticks and Stones Thrown in Cyberspace?

His name is Ghyslain Raza, but you may know of him as “Star Wars Kid”, a portly 15-year-old student at a Quebec private high school who had filmed himself wielding a mock light saber, pretending to be a Star Wars character in combat. The two-minute video was supposed to be private, but he left it lying around at his school where three students, who did not know the teenager, came across the video, posted it on the Internet on April 14, 2003, adding a message inviting people to make insulting remarks about the clip.

Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t just his friends who found the footage so amusing. The video went ‘viral’. One Web log that posted the video was allegedly downloaded 1.1 million times, and by October 2004 one Internet site dedicated to the video had recorded 76 million visits. According to UK marketing firm The Viral Factory, it became the most downloaded video of 2006. So mortified was the teenager that he dropped out of school and finished the semester at a psychiatric ward. According to the student, “It was simply unbearable, totally. It was impossible to attend class.” More than 35 other revised versions of the video clip, created by other people, have found their way to the Internet, with additional sound and visual effects.

This is an extreme but far from unique example of the devastation wrought by cyber-bullying, the term given to internet conduct in which students harass other students by e-mail and on the internet. Given the potentially devastating consequences of cyberbullying, should schools have the power to discipline their students engaging in this form of harmful conduct?

A major issue confronting school boards is that cyberbullying usually does not take place at school, although its effects can later reverberate among students during school hours. Students may post offensive material from home, or other times outside of school hours, but the targets are fellow classmates. Is it appropriate for a school board to discipline a student for posting such material simply because the postings are being accessed by other students at school or target other students? At the same time, with power comes responsibility – if school boards have the power to discipline students for their behavior outside of school, are schools then to be mandated with the responsibility to essentially monitor and censor the world-wide web? Just how far should a school board’s jurisdiction extend regarding inappropriate off-school student e-conduct?

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