If a student at Brooks Middle School bullies a peer on Facebook using his or her own electronic device off school grounds and not during school hours, can a school district discipline that kid?
The answer isn’t as simple as some might think.
School officials acknowledge that bullying has always been an issue. But with electronic communication readily available to kids, just how do schools address — and possibly discipline — bullying that occurs off-campus on social media sites or via texting?
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 is trying to answer that question as part of its extensive review of discipline polices.
The district is currently streamlining its various policies covering a variety of infractions into one single policy that addresses them all. And special attention is being given to so-called “cyberbullying,” with respect to administering discipline.
The school board and administration went through an in-depth first reading of its bullying policy on June 28.
Michelle Todd, an attorney with Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick and Kohn, the district’s law firm, attended last Tuesday’s public school board meeting to help clarify the district’s role in disciplining off-campus infractions. That role is based on the “nexus to school” concept. It’s a legal definition based on case law, Todd explained, and should also be applied on a case-by-case basis by school districts.
It would apply, she said, if a student exhibits “gross disobedience or misconduct” off school property if such conduct causes a “significant disruption in the school environment.”
So if, for example, two kids decide during the school day to fight somewhere off campus, and that conduct carries over to the school day, the district could deem that a significant “nexus.” Discipline consequences could then be administered. But some infractions, including cyberbullying, might not cause such a disruption.
And cyberbullying, in general, might not always constitute such a nexus that would lead to discipline, both Todd and D97 Superintendent Albert Roberts explained. But both stressed that such conduct would not be swept under the rug as a result.
“A lot of times bullying is happening on Facebook outside of school property and there’s some sort of carry over to the school environment where we then will, as a district, need to get involved before it escalates,” Todd said. “It doesn’t mean that the district can’t get involved in what’s happening; I want to be clear on that. What we’re looking at is whether the district can actually impose discipline for what’s occurred off school time, off school property.”
If a school district decides there is a nexus, it can administer consequences to kids, Roberts added.
“So you could get involved in calling parents to try and work out a solution if it doesn’t have a significant impact on the school,” he said. “If it has a significant impact on instruction, or safety, or operations, you can then take actual discipline actions.”
Todd added that Facebook and other social media sites are where this issue comes up for school districts, where bullying is, say, done over the weekend, causing disruption when kids come back to school.
“But what you’ll see on Monday morning is everyone was on Facebook, it was a buzz over the weekend and it’s carrying over to school and you’ve got students talking about it, maybe fights breaking out; something along those lines,” she said. “That’s a good example of what could constitute a substantial disruption in your school environment, where then the district could be able to impose discipline for that behavior.”
The harder cases to discipline, though, are the ones where there is just cyberbullying but no other infractions by kids in the building. But Roberts added that in those cases, the district would take action to involve parents or counselors. Todd said that law enforcement could also be called in if the cyberbullying warrants it. She added that the courts are very deferential to school districts in determining appropriate discipline actions in such instances.
Roberts noted parents sometimes feel cyberbullying or other harassment done electronically isn’t taken seriously by school districts. He said that’s not the case with D97.
“We can always take action but we might not be able to discipline,” he said.