N.C. students take note: Starting this week, going online to harass your teacher could get you arrested.
A new cyberbullying law with roots in Charlotte makes it a misdemeanor for students to commit various online offenses against school employees, such as creating false profiles, signing them up for Internet porn or posting personal images and private information.
The law, which took effect Dec. 1, breaks new ground nationally. The American Civil Liberties Union says it’s the first in the nation to impose criminal penalties on students for such actions.
Controversy is already churning over whether that’s a point of pride or shame.
Some teachers say it provides a weapon against online attacks that can be emotionally and professionally devastating. While belittling teachers is as old as the one-room schoolhouse, malicious material on the Web has a far greater reach than whispered nicknames, bathroom graffiti and caricatures scrawled on notepaper.
“The more access kids have to computers, we found that it was getting more pervasive,” said Judy Kidd, an Independence High teacher and head of the Charlotte-based Classroom Teachers Association.
She persuaded state Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Waxhaw, to introduce the bill. It passed with strong bipartisan support.
Tucker said teachers need protection from students who use the Internet to spread false accusations. “These children are bright and conniving,” he said.
The ACLU of North Carolina is gearing up to fight, urging students who are charged to call.
“Nobody else feels like it’s necessary to criminalize student speech online,” said ACLU policy director Sarah Preston. Students 16 and older could go to jail for up to 60 days, she noted – even for posting true statements.
“Essentially, what we’re teaching students is it’s not OK to criticize government officials,” Preston said.
Students are just starting to learn about the law. Some interviewed last week said online harassment merits punishment, but a criminal charge that could affect college admission and job opportunities seems harsh, especially for a first offense.
“Once they see it’s wrong, most people will stop doing it,” said Tyshanae White, a senior at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.
Crime vs. criticism
About five years ago, a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools discovered that someone had created a fake MySpace page in his name and posted material implying he was a pedophile.
CMS investigators traced it to students at Providence High and charged those students with cyberstalking.
But Kenny Lynch, the CMS detective who specializes in online issues, says the charges were dismissed because the offense didn’t fit that law, which requires physical threats or a repeated pattern of messages intended to abuse or embarrass someone.
The new law will provide a tool for prosecuting such cases, Lynch said, and for investigators to get subpoenas.
Lynch said he gets a couple of complaints a month about students conducting questionable online activity against employees, but not all would merit criminal prosecution.
For instance, on Thursday he was looking into “derogatory” Twitter comments about a teacher at Hough High. The tweets didn’t use the teacher’s name and may fall “more in line with freedom of speech,” Lynch said.
Drawing that line will be a challenge confronting educators, police and prosecutors.
The ACLU says the law gives them too much discretion, raising the prospect that students could face charges for criticizing administrators or accurately reporting offensive comments made by a teacher. And the group says the penalty – up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine – is too harsh.
“Maturing students often say or post online things without fully understanding the consequences,” says an ACLU fact sheet on the law. “They should not receive a criminal record and be saddled with a lifetime of damaging consequences simply for posting something on the Internet that a school official finds offensive.”
Harm to teachers
Nora Carr, a former CMS communications chief, recalls a 2007 incident in which a YouTube video of a young female elementary school teacher appeared.
At a fifth-grade “graduation,” someone in the audience had zoomed in on her rear end and set the video to the Van Halen song “Hot for Teacher,” according to Carr and an article written at the time.
According to the article, the teacher couldn’t get YouTube to remove the video until CMS officials intervened.
Carr, who is now chief of staff in Guilford County Schools, said CMS investigators never found the source of the video but suspect it was an adult in the audience.
It’s an example of how troubling online harassment can be, even if there’s no false information, Carr said. She said the teacher was so upset by the incident she left the profession.
“The harm multiplies exponentially when you put something out on the worldwide web,” Carr said. “You can’t pull it back once you create it.”
Kidd recalls an instance in which CMS fifth- and sixth-graders got the email password for a younger student and used it to send sexual emails to teachers. “It was very disconcerting to have students looking at them in a sexual way,” Kidd said.
Parents urged to be ‘nosy’
Carr and Lynch both say extreme offenses by students were more common several years ago, when most had less experience with social media.
Today’s students may have learned from others’ mistakes, they say. Lynch notes that while the students who created the fake MySpace page avoided criminal convictions, they were disciplined at school and one senior saw a college admission derailed.
While teens may be savvy, the move in CMS and many other schools to let students bring their own tablets and phones means ever-younger students have easy Internet access.
Lynch said parents need to be “nosy” and check on how kids are using those devices.
As part of its move toward “bring your own technology,” the CMS board recently approved a policy that requires “digital citizenship” training for students.
Lynch has long been doing Internet safety talks. He said he tries to help students protect themselves from predators, but also from their own rash impulses. He’s incorporating the prospect of criminal penalties into his talks, he said, and warning students about the illusion that online actions are anonymous or private.
“Anything on the Internet, you’re creating a digital footprint of yourself that’s going to stay out there forever,” he said.
Kyle Ferrebee, a senior at Butler High, said he hasn’t heard much about students harassing teachers online, though it’s common for students to trade gripes on Facebook or Twitter. He said if students cross the line, educators should talk to them first. “If it proceeds, then step (the punishment) up a level,” he said.
Sarah Kerman, a junior at North Meck, agrees. She said CMS needs to make sure students understand the new penalties and the definition of cyberbullying, but she doesn’t think it’s common. “A lot of people are aware of what the negative consequences would be,” she said. “There’s more of a sense that what you say is public.”