ST. LOUIS — Advocates of a new Missouri anti-cyberbullying statute that takes effect Friday hope it will help school districts focus on behavior that many say is becoming more prevalent and can be more harmful than traditional bullying.
The new statute requires districts to put the terms "cyberbullying" and "electronic communications" into their anti-bullying policies, which have been required since 2007.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that some districts that have drafted changes are seeing a difference. But some lawyers say adding the phrases won't legally change anything.
"All this statute did was add a couple of words to it to just make sure that schools were covering it," said Robert Useted, an attorney for five school districts in St. Louis County. "It has been my experience that most school districts already had a policy dealing with electronic bullying."
The law comes four years after a St. Charles County teenager, Megan Meier, took her life after being the victim of online bullying. Since her death, at least 45 states have changed harassment laws to include cyberbullying.
The Missouri School Boards' Association has had the term "cyberbullying" in its suggested school policy for four years now. Schools can take action against online bullying, even without the exact terms, said Kelli Hopkins, a director for the association.
"Everything that constitutes bullying was already prohibited," Hopkins said, "but when legislators specifically address cyberbullying, they tell schools that 'we see this as an issue, and we are going to address it.' Nothing legally has changed; philosophically it has changed."
The Lindbergh School District in suburban St. Louis, which added the term "cyberbullying" to its discipline policies a couple of years ago, says problems with online bullying have decreased since the change.
"It has made our staff more aware of what it is," said Chuck Triplett, director of curriculum and student programs at Lindbergh. "We have more of a consistent approach to how we deal with it, and now that all the kids know about it, we see less of it that directly relates to school."
Still, deciding when to discipline students for online bullying is a touchy subject. Another St. Louis County district, Rockwood, is working with its attorney to decide what needs to be added to the current policy to bring it up to code. It is also trying to decide how clearly the terms and conditions should be defined.
Among the issues: How should schools handle a student who bullies from a home computer? Though the new law allows districts to discipline students for off-campus conduct, some say that kind of power raises questions.
"The larger issue is just exactly how extensive is the school districts' authority to a kid who does stuff at their computers at home," said Useted, the education lawyer.
Parkway School District administrators plan to address any bullying brought to their attention, but only discipline those whose bullying relates specifically to school. However, the district is waiting to get more direction from the Missouri School Boards' Association before moving forward on incorporating the terms.