Attorney on Cyberbullying: Err on Side of Safety

 Gretchen Shipley
 Gretchen Shipley is an attorney with Fagen Friedman and
 Fulfrost in Fresno, Calif.
by Lilac Peterson

When it comes to cyber misconduct, Gretchen Shipley wants school administrators to always err on the side of student safety, regardless of the risk of violating someone’s 1st Amendment rights.

Shipley, an attorney with Fagen Friedman and Fulfrost in Fresno, Calif., led a Thought Leader session Friday at the AASA National Conference on Education to discuss the implications of cyber misconduct on and off school grounds.

“It’s like nailing Jell-O to a wall,” Shipley said of the slippery slope regarding student cyber misconduct.

A precarious balance exists between school districts interfering and remaining impartial to the plight of victimized students. Shipley described defending the student as the lesser of two evils. She suggested a school district face a 1st Amendment violation from the student aggressor rather than leave the student to fend for him or herself. The repercussions from bad public relations were the bullied student attempting to inflict self-harm out of hopelessness or desperation would far outweigh the inconvenience resulting from a potential lawsuit.

If a case of cyber misconduct is not directly related to a school activity or does not cause a substantial disruption in school, a school district can reserve the right to not intervene. If substantial disruption does occur, Shipley suggests school faculty document the specific forms of disruption. If a lawsuit is filed and the school district does not have adequate evidence of significant disruption over the matter of cyber misconduct, it may be accused of infringing on students’ 1st Amendment rights.

To avoid getting entangled in lawsuits, the school district can choose alternate penalties besides suspension, Shipley said. Instead, the district can order a cease and desist, call a parent-teacher conference or, in the case of offensive material being posted publicly on a social networking site, appeal to that site to have it removed.

With regard to the growing role of technology in classrooms today, Shipley is both optimistic and cautious.

“If these lawsuits haven’t struck your district yet, they will,” Shipley said.

If schools are to depend on technology for their classroom curricula, she suggests enacting preventative policies to limit students’ school Internet use to solely academically related activities. Access to YouTube and other social media sites during class would require parent permission.

“If you’re going to invite the Internet into your classroom, students still need to act as if they are sitting at a classroom desk,” Shipley said.

(Lilac Peterson, a junior at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, is an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

Related Story:  Dealing With Social Media and Cyberbullying