LANSING (AP) – It took Kevin Epling six years to successfully campaign for a law – named in honor of his late son – that requires Michigan school districts to have anti-bullying policies on the books.
He hopes a follow-up effort to combat bullying done through social media, texting and instant messaging will take far less time.
Lawmakers in recent days took an initial step forward with a bill that would make districts and charter schools define “cyberbullying” and include it in their anti-bullying policies. They also would have to begin reporting all bullying incidents to the state and come up with procedures to protect the confidentiality of those who report bullying.
Advocates say there is not much difference between physical bullying on the schoolyard and an incident online.
“It still shows up in school whether it’s done via technology or face to face,” said Epling, an East Lansing resident and co-director of BullyPolice USA. Epling’s 14-year-old son, Matt, killed himself after a 2002 hazing incident.
The legislation is designed to address gaps in the 2011 “Matt’s Safe School Law” and raise awareness of cyberbullying.
A recent Associated Press review of news articles found about a dozen suicides in the U.S. since October 2010 that were attributed at least in part to cyberbullying. A cyberbullying expert has said the real number is at least twice that.
Democratic Sen. Glenn Anderson, of Westland, is sponsoring the bill. He is optimistic after it won bipartisan approval last week in the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee and is now pending on the Senate floor. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has opposed cyberbullying legislation in the past over free speech concerns but is OK with this measure.
Anderson said he understands educators’ concerns about the difficulty of addressing potentially numerous instances of cyberbullying that could occur off school grounds and outside school hours.
“What the schools need to do and (what) this is attempting to do is indicate the seriousness of it – that it’s not only physical things that happen to children in schools but the social media can be just as devastating,” Anderson said.
One sticking point is over the bill’s reporting requirement, which backers wanted to include in the 2011 law.
Schools already have to report bullying incidents to their local boards of education. They would also be required to send the information to the Michigan Department of Education under the legislation.
“Conceptually, we have been supportive of bullying prevention legislation. But we’d like to spend our time preventing bullying rather than filing multiple reports about it,” said Brad Biladeau, lobbyist for the Michigan Association of School Administrators.
He said school districts file more reports to the state and federal governments than there are days in the school year. He also said there are unanswered questions about how school leaders are supposed to monitor or respond to students on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.
Backers, however, said if broader data can be used to show which parts of Michigan may have higher incidents of bullying, prevention efforts can be better catered to those areas.
“The more we honestly know about what’s happening in our school districts, the better prepared we are to actually step in and help,” Epling said.
The 2011 law, which at the time made Michigan the 48th state with an anti-bullying law, included electronic communications in the definition of bullying.
But Epling said he would like to see the Senate legislation revised to go beyond bullying with school-owned devices to also target bullying with personal cell phones and computers. It is not uncommon for states to update their laws given changing technology, he said, adding that he hopes the bill will give more guidance to schools about drafting cyberbullying policies.
Of 49 states with anti-bullying laws now, 18 address cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a website maintained by criminal justice professors at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University.
The Senate’s timing for a potential vote is unclear. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
“This hopefully starts to plug that gap and really gets schools to understand this is a major issue and they have to address it,” Epling said.
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