There are a lot of demoralizing and distressing stories of kid-on-kid harassment and abuse in this NYT piece on cyberbullying. But the single most depressing element? The reaction of one bully's parents:
The piece deals with the difficulty schools face in dealing with cyberbullying: new terrain, and often legally ambiguous when incidents take place in students' free time, on their computers and phones. But clearly, it's something that needs to be addressed. Beyond the tragedies of Megan Meier or Phoebe Prince, quotidian cyber-cruelty has taken the usual miseries of middle-school to a horrible new level. "When dozens of kids vote online, which is not uncommon, about whether a student is fat or stupid or gay, the impact can be devastating," states the piece. Well, yeah. And, as one principal in the piece points out, while there's always been taunting, it's never had the longevity technology gives it. A few more awful anecdotes from the article:
Recently, a seventh-grade girl held a weekend birthday party and her jealous former friend showed up. By Tuesday night, the uninvited guest had insulted the birthday girl's dress on Facebook, calling it and the girl's mother cheap. The remarks were particularly wounding, because the birthday girl's family is not well-off.
And, of an incident that left a devastated father weeping in a principal's office:
A Facebook page had sprung up about the man's son, who was new in town. The comments included ethnic slurs, snickers about his sexuality and an excruciating nickname. In short order, nearly 50 children piled on, many of them readily identifiable.
Awful, right? And one can only imagine the chagrin a parent might feel at learning that his child was involved in this kind of harrassment - pain well-illustrated by this father's letter. As a parent of a bully, you'd surely feel pain, shame, anger, confusion, and wonder whether to resort to draconian punishments, counseling or reparation. Or, you know, a lawsuit. Against the school district. To wit, the case of one Evan S. Cohen of Beverly Hills:
After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen's daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her "ugly," "spoiled," a "brat" and a "slut." J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.
"What incensed me," said Mr. Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, "was that these people were going to suspend my daughter for something that happened outside of school." On behalf of his daughter, he sued.
The judge ultimately ruled in Cohen's favor, finding that because the school had acted quickly and quietly to suppress the video, the disruption to the school had been only "minimal" - a ruling based on a 1969 precedent that stated "When a student's speech interferes substantially with the school's educational mission, a school can impose discipline." The school district swallowed all Cohen's legal fees: $107,150.80.
At least, valuable lessons were learned!
The lesson Mr. Cohen hopes his daughter learns from the case is about the limits on governmental intrusion. "A girl came to school who was upset by something she saw on the Internet," Mr. Cohen said in a telephone interview, "and these people had in their mind that they were going to do something about it. The school doesn't have that kind of power. It's up to the parents to discipline their child." He did chastise his daughter, saying, "That wasn't a nice thing to do."
Oh, and don't worry: "His daughter offered to remove it from YouTube. But Mr. Cohen keeps it posted, he said, "as a public service" so viewers can see "what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.""
...and, more to the point, why this kind of thing goes on. Whatever legal provisions are made in future years to help schools deal with the phenomenon, there's the truth: they only have the kids a few hours a day, for a few years.