Connecticut Lawmakers Introduce Cyberbullying Laws

Published April 8, 2011

Connecticut state Reps. Andrew Fleischmann (D-West Hartford), chairman of the House Education Committee, and Catherine Abercrombie (D-Meriden) introduced a bill in February that would make the state the seventh in the nation to enact laws addressing cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is identified as employing text messaging, emailing, or social networking sites to abuse fellow students.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that all children feel safe at school,” Fleischmann said in a press release. “Bullying and cyberbullying often have direct, powerfully negative effects on other students’ education. We have heard from students who have found it hard to attend class, walk down the hallway, or focus on their homework due to bullying and cyberbullying which is simply unacceptable.”

Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist who is a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, cautions about rushing into legislation that regulates children’s behavior outside of school.

“I really would like to see the science behind any of these legislative recommendations,” Chesney-Lind said. “However formal a particular incident is, making vast changes in law about regulating the lives of young people who don’t have a lot of rights in our country really needs to be justified by hard science.”

After-School Special Authority

Bullying that takes place in cyberspace has garnered the attention of numerous legislators across the country. Connecticut’s neighboring states Massachusetts and New Hampshire, for example, already have taken strong steps to address cyberbullying.

Currently each of Connecticut’s boards of education is responsible for developing and implementing a prevention and intervention strategy that addresses bullying on provisions of reporting, investigating, notification, and intervention. The existing law also allows schools to address bullying outside of the school setting if it has a direct impact on a student’s academic performance or safety in school, and also requires that school officials notify parents and police when a student gets in trouble for bullying.

“This new Internet age that brings so many neat things with it also brings with it various types of cyberbullying,” Fleischmann said at a panel on “Bullying in the Classroom and the Chat Room” held this past November.

“If something that happens at Facebook, something that happens with texting or with the Web site affects your ability to perform at school then it becomes the school’s business,” Fleischmann added.

Connecticut legislators cited statistics from a 2009 Connecticut School Health Survey finding one of every four high school students in the state is bullied each year. The report noted students who say they are being bullied are likely to get less sleep, have property stolen, miss school because they feel unsafe, carry a weapon to school, experience dating violence, be depressed, and attempt suicide.

‘What Constitutes Bullying’

Chesney-Lind says she’s been looking at the research that’s been conducted on all types of bullying.

“I’m not satisfied with what I’ve seen so far,” she said. “The details matter here, as it can be quite elastic about what constitutes bullying. The law is most useful when it’s very precise and when everybody understands what the behavior is that’s being prohibited.”

Chesney-Lind is concerned that behaviors already against the law, such as sexual harassment and physical violence, are being categorized legally as typical bullying.

“Those of us who have looked at, especially, the issue of sexual harassment in schools, and increasingly also people who are concerned with race discrimination in schools, are getting worried that this is all going to be folded up under bullying,” Chesney-Lind explained.

“Saying it’s bullying when a racial epithet is shouted or maybe when a boy is beat up because he belongs to a particular race isn’t just ‘bullying,'” she said. “It’s not. At that point, the bullying legally becomes a hate crime.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.