A new Illinois law that allows school boards to expel or suspend any student who makes a threat against school personnel or other students online is being called a "baby step" to stopping cyber bullying by one of the bill's co-sponsors. But it is a welcome step for Elmhurst District 205, which has been experiencing its own issues with online threats.
Rep. Sandra Pihos (R-Glen Ellyn), said because of concern about infringement of First Amendment rights, the bill is a "little soft," but has enough teeth to provide school boards with direction on how to deal with students who make explicit threats online.
It has come to the attention of Elmhurst Patch that parents in District 205 have concerns about a recent incident involving a York High School student. Privacy laws prohibit district staff members from speaking about this incident, but an email sent to Elmhurst Patch by a parent describes a student's Facebook page as containing threatening photos, and references to the Nazi Party and the Trench Coat Mafia, which made news after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
"Something needs to be said to get parents' attention on how dangerous Facebook is for kids and how it's the new way to create hate and to cause very hurtful things," the parent wrote in the email.
Meg Schnoor, assistant superintendent for student services at District 205, said she would not give specifics about the incident.
"We have processes in place to address just those types of threats, but I'm not comfortable getting into the detail about this particular situation," she said.
"Students' needs may be academic or social emotional, and are most frequently a combination of the two," she said. "Our principals, deans, social workers, counselors, psychologists and teachers are well aware of the referral processes and initiate these processes when they have concerns about a student."
When it comes to imminent threats, the district has measures in place to protect students, including lock-down and evacuation procedures if necessary, she said.
As for the new law, Pihos said it is vague and leaves to interpretation where threats can originate and grounds for expulsion or suspension.
Students can be disciplined if they make a statement online that "could reasonably be interpreted as threatening," according to the language of the law.
The threat must also be made on a web site, so a threatening email exchange between students will not be punishable under this law, Pihos said.
The language of the bill states a student will face repercussions if they "have made an explicit threat on an internet web site that was accessible within the school at the time the threat was made or was available to third parties who worked or studied within the school grounds at the time the threat was made, and the threat could reasonably be interpreted as threatening."
"This is certainly not the be-all, end-all in solving this," she said. "I think it's a good start, and I think we're going to be revisiting this at some point in time."
Nevertheless, Elmhurst School Superintendent David Pruneau said the new law will "give school districts some 'teeth' to address this growing problem—which is definitely a good thing."
“Previously in Illinois, it was a grey area as to whether or not we had jurisdiction to act on something that was taking place outside the bounds of the school day," he said.
Bullying, intimidation and harassment is addressed in several areas of District 205's policy manual.
Section 7:132, "Student Code of Conduct," states bullying is prohibited at school or school-sponsored activities, and "through the transmission of information from a school computer, a school computer network, or to other similar electronic school equipment."
Section 7:310, Restrictions on Publications and Written or Electronic Material, prohibits students from "creating and/or distributing written, printed, or electronic material, including photographs and Internet material and blogs, that cause substantial disruption to school operations or interfere with the rights of other students or staff members."
Section 7:20, Suspension Procedures, states: "Any District student who is determined, after an investigation, to have engaged in conduct prohibited by this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, including but not limited to suspension and expulsion consistent with the discipline policy."
So, how widespread is the problem?
"We haven't had a lot of concern about it, but it is something we're starting to see on a more regular basis, and we're dealing with that," Schnoor said. "Unfortunately, it's an added layer (of bullying). It has given a whole other avenue in which bullying can take place, and it's not visible to the casual observer."
And, it's not just high school kids.
"We're starting to see it, similar to the nationwide trend, as getting younger and younger," Schnoor said.
Although there have been cyber bullying cases around the country, Pihos said there are no local incidents that led her to co-sponsor this bill. As a former school teacher, she was aware of bullying but says it is has only gotten worse with the help of the Internet.
The law will make the seriousness of bullying abundantly clear to students, parents and the community, Schnoor said.
"It reinforces the notion that bullying cannot and will not be tolerated," she said.