2012 Winning Essay

"To Protect the Server and to Serve as the Protector: Richardson Middle School as the Cyberbully Police"

by Isabel Edwards
Patrick Henry High School, Roanoke VA

This past fall, tens of millions of children headed back to one of nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States.  These children are legally required to attend school, in order to learn the skills essential to our nation’s continued success and receive the moral training to become upright citizens.  During the school day, public schools stand in loco parentis, bearing the same responsibility for the safety and welfare of every child entrusted to them that a parent or legal guardian bears outside of school.  At Richardson Middle School in 2012, this responsibility includes the prevention and detection of cyberbullying committed by or against its students.

From this nation’s very beginning, the operation of public schools has been the states’ duty.  The federal government has nevertheless found ways to influence the states’ programs.  One such way is through funding programs like the “E-Rate” discount program.  The E-Rate program provides federal funds to states to make telecommunication and internet services more affordable in public schools and libraries. Assuming Austin County is among the thousands of school systems that use E-Rate, the county must comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Neighborhood Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA and NCIPA).  These federal laws require Richardson Middle School to have an internet safety policy signed by every student and their parent(s) as well as an internet safety education program that addresses cyberbullying and the proper use of social media.  Richardson Middle School now knows that its computers have been used to cyberbully Jennifer.  The cruel comments made on Jennifer’s blog are a blatant violation of the school’s internet safety policy.  The school must take further action to redress these comments or face non-compliance with CIPA and NCIPA. 

Richardson Middle School should take all feasible steps to prevent cyberbullying through the use of the school’s computers and while on school property.  This is the best way to insulate the school from legal liability.  Calling the parents of Jennifer’s classmates to enlist their support in stopping cyberbullying and disciplining Chris for tripping Jennifer were reasonable steps for the school to take.  So far, these steps have not stopped students from cyberbullying Jennifer. As requested by Jennifer’s parents, the school should again instruct Jennifer’s classmates not to post harassing comments to her blog.  In addition, the school should password protect Jennifer’s blog such that it cannot be accessed by anyone who does not know the password.  This safeguard would keep unwanted posters off Jennifer’s blog, yet still allow her teachers and friends to view Jennifer’s posts and encourage her.  The cyberbullying could resume, of course, if her password were given out beyond a select group of classmates.  Were that to happen, the password could be reset and restricted to teachers only. 

Jennifer’s parents have also requested that the school force Chris to turn over his laptop to be searched for evidence of cyberbullying Jennifer.  This request is more difficult for the school.  It is crucial to keep in mind that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to searches conducted by school personnel of a student’s belongings.  The school may have difficulty getting access to Chris’s laptop at all.  It is unclear whether the laptops that the school required students to purchase must be brought to school, or whether students can instead rely on the school’s own computers during the school day.  If Chris does not already bring his laptop to school, the school cannot force him to do so.   School officials can and should still reach out to Chris’s parents in an effort to convince them to turn over his laptop voluntarily to be searched.

If Chris does bring his laptop to school, the school can search the laptop consistent with the Fourth Amendment as long as the school has a reasonable suspicion that he has posted bullying comments to Jennifer’s blog in violation of school policy.  Probable cause is not required before a school can search a student’s belongings. Because Chris has repeatedly tripped Jennifer, and because one anonymous poster frequently concludes his posts with “have a nice trip tomorrow,” the school has a reasonable suspicion to believe that Chris has cyberbullied Jennifer. 

Assuming the school can prove Chris has been involved in cyberbullying, his parents can be held legally responsible for his actions.  Chris is an 11 year-old.   He is a minor, and his parents have been put on notice by his school of specific suspicions of cyberbullying yet have apparently chosen to do nothing to put an end to the conduct.  Evidence that Chris’s parents refused to turn over his laptop voluntarily when confronted with the school’s suspicions would further hurt their legal position.  The tort system is designed to provide legal damages, usually money, to an individual harmed by another.  Here, Jennifer has been emotionally harmed.  Her grades have fallen, she has shown signs of depression, and has made references to harming herself.  The combination of Chris’s repeated physical bullying, his cyberbullying, and Jennifer’s emotional injuries would allow Jennifer’s parents to sue Chris and his parents for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Part of the role of public schools today is to teach children the difference between right and wrong, particularly where parents like Chris’s fail to do their job.  Jennifer has the right to join her classmates in regular classes.  Her presence there does not harm anybody’s education, and nobody has the right to interfere with hers.  By disciplining Chris for physical bullying, by adopting policies mandated by CIPA and NCIPA, by password protecting Jennifer’s blog, and by searching Chris’s laptop if it is found on him at school based on reasonable suspicion of his cyberbullying, Richardson Middle School will have fulfilled its obligations to protect its computer server and to serve as Jennifer’s protector. 

Updated: May 01, 2012