State schools will investigate after-hours bullying

According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent of students in grades 9-12 said they were bullied online in Illinois.
(L.G. Patterson, Associated Press)
Chicago Tribune

A new law will force state schools to investigate reports of cyberbullying — even when it happens outside of school.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, doesn’t tell schools how to investigate cyberbullying. And it doesn’t ask school officials to troll students’ social media posts, looking for bad behavior. Rather, it requires school boards to figure out the best way to help a victim if cyberbullying is reported.

One method became controversial this month after a southern Illinois principal sent a letter to parents saying the school may ask for social media passwords if a student is suspected of violating any district rules.

Administrators at Community Unit School District 2 in Troy sent a letter to parents when students returned to school this month. It said the school “may require a student or his or her parent/guardian to provide a password” or account information if cyberbullying is reported.


Leigh Lewis, superintendent of the district, said no administrator has asked for a student’s password yet. She said that if a student refused to provide a password, there wouldn’t be a criminal prosecution. However, police would be informed if a student or the school is seriously threatened on social media.

State Rep. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, who sponsored the law requiring schools to investigate cyberbullying, said the law was never intended to give schools the right to a student’s social media passwords.

“This (law) means the victim can bring forward information about bullying outside of school,” Fine said. “We had no intention to ever talk about what someone’s password is.”

She said she introduced the bill because she heard from students and parents who were affected by cyberbullying. She said students have been pulled out of school and have even committed suicide as a result of it.

Another state law, also effective Jan. 1, prohibits schools from accessing a student’s social media account unless the school has reason to believe itcontains evidence that the student has violated a school disciplinary rule or policy.

The Illinois Association of School Boards, which advises school boards on policy matters, had suggested that schools investigate bullying outside of the classroom even before the law required it. It advises schools to adopt a policy that allows them to ask for social media information if there is substantial reason to think access could shed light on the issue.

Among districts that adopted the association’s suggested wording was Community Unit School District 303 in St. Charles.

Lynn Tucker, a parent of two boys at that district’s Thompson Middle School, didn’t know about the policy until recently. But it doesn’t bother her.


“As long as it’s in the best interest of the child and it’s the right person looking at it, I don’t mind,” Tucker said.

Both of Tucker’s boys, 12 and 14, have social media accounts, and her 12-year-old son has experienced cyberbullying. He mentioned at school that a classmate had posted about him on social media, prompting a guidance counselor to call her.

“That was the first instance where I knew I needed to pay attention,” she said.

Cyberbullying has gotten new attention from parents and educators alike as studies show its prevalence.


According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent of students in grades 9-12 said they were bullied online in Illinois. Nationally, 14.8 percent of students experienced online bullying.

Before the new law, schools typically either chose not to, or felt like they legally couldn’t, help students who were bullied online after school hours, said personal injury lawyer Sheldon Minkow.

Minkow specializes in bullying, and he said cyberbullying is by far the most prevalent type he sees.

“We’ve had two cases where affected students wrote in their diaries and said they were contemplating suicide,” Minkow said.


He said school principals and superintendents “hate bullying cases” because they can be hard to prove and most bullying isn’t witnessed by adults. This law makes sure students who complain about cyberbullying get the help they need, Minkow said.

Some parents are hesitant about leaving cyberbullying issues for schools to deal with.

Shannan Younger, a blogger for Chicago Parent and mother of a 12-year-old girl, said she won’t let her daughter have social media accounts.

“I’m reminded of it frequently,” Younger said, laughing.


Bullying isn’t the only reason she won’t let her daughter start an account. She noted that it’s against Facebook’s and other social media companies’ policies for people younger than 13 to have one.

She said cyberbullying is dangerous, and she thinks more of it happens now outside of school when kids don’t have to be face to face.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, agrees that cyberbullying is dangerous and a threat to effective education. But he said the organization opposed the new law because it will “permit schools to investigate and punish students for acts that take place outside of school and school hours.

He said the ACLU believes expanding authority beyond school hours isn’t necessary.


“We have a mechanism in society to control the behavior of young people outside the school,” Yohnka said. “They’re called parents.”

Twitter @lexygross