California specifically recognizes cyberbullying as harmful to students as face-to-face conflict. (Courtesy photo)

What responsibility do schools carry for cyberbullying?

This week’s question comes from Michelle P., who writes:

Q: “My daughter is a sophomore at a high school within the San Francisco Unified School District. Like many kids her age, she has a smartphone, which helps the family stay in touch but also allows her to interact regularly online with other kids from her school, some of whom can be very nasty to her, even threatening. She doesn’t feel like she has any choice but to engage with them but this cyberbullying has made her so anxious she can’t focus on her schoolwork. Does her school or SFUSD have any responsibility to intervene when their students are harming each other online?”

A: Michelle, you are right to be concerned and in your intuition that the school should be involved. Cyberbullying has become increasingly common over the past decades and can have tragic, even deadly, consequences.

The State of California recognizes all bullying as a form of violence that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power between individuals or groups of children and results in unprovoked, intentional, and usually repeated physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. Bullying may also manifest as sexual harassment, hate violence, and other severe or pervasive behaviors that create an intimidating or hostile educational environment. California has also specifically recognized the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying, defined as repeated or recurring harm willfully inflicted through electronic media, which can be just as detrimental to students’ wellbeing as face-to-face conflict.

Amendments to California’s existing Safe Place to Learn Act and Interagency School Safety Demonstration Act became effective on Jan. 1, 2019 and required all local educational agencies to adopt procedures for preventing acts of bullying, including cyberbullying, by the end of this calendar year. In May, SFUSD complied with this requirement by adopting Board Policy 5131.2: Bullying and Administrative Policy 5131.2: Bullying. SFUSD policy specifically prohibits transmission of communications or posting of harassing messages, direct threats, or other harmful texts, sounds, or images on the Internet, social networking sites, or other digital technologies, as well as assuming another person’s identity through an electronic account in order to damage that person’s reputation. SFUSD authorizes school administrators to intervene even if the cyberbullying is conducted off campus or outside of school hours in any case where the behavior is impacting students’ learning environment.

Your daughter’s school should have notified all families of the school’s reporting and investigation process. Any student, parent, guardian, or other individual who learns of school-related discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or bullying should immediately contact the school’s principal, or any other staff member. Any school employee who learns of cyberbullying is also required to report the activity to the school principal, who must in turn notify the district compliance officer and inform the target student of their right to file a formal written complaint with the district Office of Equity. Cyberbullying victims are encouraged to save and print relevant electronic or digital messages for aid in investigation of the matter. Complainants names will be held confidential to the extent possible and district policy prohibits any form of retaliation against any individual who files such a complaint.

The school principal is first required to determine whether interim measures are necessary to address the effects of the reported bullying pending investigation and final resolution. After a thorough investigation, including interviews of the accused student and any other witnesses, the principal will determine whether the matter may be resolved through “restorative practices,” a process similar to mediation. If further action is needed, a school may discipline the offending student and, if appropriate, request any applicable social media sites to remove offensive online content and/or suspend the offender’s user privileges.

Pupils who engage in discrimination, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or retaliation in violation of law, Board Policy, or administrative regulation may be referred for counseling, behavioral intervention and education, suspension, and/or expulsion. Any employee who permits or engages in prohibited discrimination, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or retaliation shall also be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

If you are unhappy with SFUSD’s resolution of the matter, state law allows 15 days to appeal the district’s action to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. After sixty days following the filing of an appeal, you may seek civil remedies through the courts, seeking damages and injunctive relief (orders from the court to stop or change certain behaviors/policies).

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm, P.C. Email questions and topics for future articles to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no fee or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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