First it was the moment of silence, then healthier lunch food; now the state wants Illinois schools to crack down on cyber-bullying.

This January, a new state law goes into effect for all Illinois school districts, requiring that Internet safety courses be taught each school year. Senate Bill 2512 was approved by the Illinois General Assembly in May and signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich last month. The Internet Education Safety Act covers high schools and elementary and middle schools.

The measure requires schools to incorporate Internet safety into its curriculum for grades three and above, beginning with the 2009-2010 year. The type of instruction and how long it should last will be up to local school boards to decide.

District 200 already has a policy covering cyber-bullying. District 97 has a policy covering verbal and physical bullying but not as it might be practiced online. According to an independent, 2006 national survey of more than 500 teens, age 12-17, 36 percent reported being threatened or harassed via e-mail, chat rooms or instant messaging. The study was conducted by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization of law enforcement officials and crime victims. A similar survey, conducted by the organization in ’06, of more than 500 youth, age 6-11, found that 17 percent reported such harassment.

Margo Bristow, a substance awareness specialist at Oak Park and River Forest High School, noted that OPRF currently addresses cyber-bullying in some self-defense classes students take. She said the campus has been cracking down on cyber-bullying since 2005, which saw a heavy incidence of students harassing each other on networking sites like MySpace.

Girls more than boys typically engage in cyber-bullying, which is also true at OPRF, noted Bristow. But in general, the practice is on the rise among youth, she said, especially in junior high. OPRF now blocks such sites from computer labs. Teachers are also restricted from using the sites for social networking, though some do have accounts set up for classroom assignments. In such cases, students can get access from their teacher.

Some schools include cyber-bullying in their code of conduct. Consequences for cyber-bullying at OPRF can include in-school or out-of-school suspensions, or having their computer use at school strictly curtailed.

“It’s considered up there with physically aggressive behavior [and] endangerment to students, whether it’s physical or verbal, said Bristow.

Don Vogel, library media specialist at OPRF, noted the school’s computer filtering system screens out inappropriate sites that could be used for cyber-bullying. Students can’t sign into lab computers under generic names anymore either. Last year, the high school started requiring students to sign in under their own names.

Vogel admits students try to crack the system by using “backdoor” web pages that link students to certain sites, but the system catches that.

“We rely on the system to monitor what kids are doing online,” he said.

Other school-related laws passed in recent years in Illinois include a mandate to districts allowing students a “moment of silence” at the start of school day, and prohibiting junk food on campuses. Concerning the new state law, Vogel said he’s not sure how OPRF will implement it. The measure takes effect Jan. 1, 2009.

Facts about the cyber-bullying law

The Internet Safety Education Act passed 55-1 in the Illinois Senate and 106-8 in the House. Oak Park legislators voting for the measure: State senators Don Harmon (39th) and Kimberly Lightford (4th), and state reps Karen Yarbrough (7th), LaShawn Ford (8th) and Deborah Graham (78th).

Join the discussion on social media!