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Proposed warning: Utah cyberbullies can face expulsion, police

Published January 10, 2014 10:32 am

Education • A proposed rule change would require Utah schools to alert students to the possible consequences for cyberbullying.
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Utah schools might soon have to put kids on notice that they could be expelled or even referred to police if they use their personal cell phones or computers to bully others.

The state school board gave preliminary approval Thursday to a rule that requires school policies to address how students and employees may and may not use their school-owned and private electronic devices.

Much of what the rule lays out is already practiced at many Utah schools, but the rule would ask districts to make it official, if they haven't already, so students and parents know what to expect.

"The thinking was that there are potential ... consequences both administrative and criminal for students, so they should be warned about them," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the State Office of Education.

The rule would require district policies to inform students that there may be "administrative or criminal penalties" for misusing electronic devices at school. It would also require those polices to inform students that if they use their personal devices inappropriately they may be confiscated.

Perhaps most notably, the policies would alert parents and students that if kids use their privately-owned electronic devices to bully or harass other students or employees, and that disrupts school or a school-sponsored activity, officials may impose penalties up to expulsion and may notify police.

The policy is silent on whether that applies to use of personal devices just at school or at home as well. Lear said case law has been somewhat mixed about whether schools can punish kids for cyberbullying that takes place outside of school.

But if bullying outside of school causes a disruption at school, then schools might get involved.

Board President Tami Pyfer said the board felt it was important to put the specifics into one rule, with kids now using technology to bully. In recent years, reports of kids committing suicide after being bullied online have proliferated across the country.

"Bullying when I was in high school," Pyfer said, "is not the same as it is now."

Schools in Utah take a number of approaches to technology, with some providing kids with tablets, iPods and laptops, others letting kids bring their own, and still others offering little beyond limited access to desktop computers.

Utah schools must already have policies addressing cyberbullying, but those policies aren't always specific when it comes to private versus school-owned devices.

Still, some districts are already going after students who cyberbully even outside of school. Granite District, for example, takes action if such bullying leads to distraction in the classroom, said Ben Horsley, district spokesman.

"If a child does not feel safe in school or their environment is infringed upon in any way, whether it's bullying or threats, then that's going to impact their educational outcome," Horsley said.

The state school board must vote on the changes one more time next month for them to be final.