School board will consider a new cyber-bullying policy

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The Aspen school board will consider incorporating cyber-bullying into a district-wide policy after a local attorney said at a meeting Monday that it has become a problem in the community.

As it stands, the Aspen School District defines bullying as “any written or verbal expression, physical act or gesture that is intended to cause stress on students in the school environment.”

It does not specifically address cyber-bullying, Matthew Ferguson noted in a memo to the board. Ferguson presented the memo during an open comment period at Monday’s meeting.

As cyber-bullying becomes more prevalent, it’s imperative that the school district address its policy on bullying through text messages or on social media sites, he said.

Bullying used to be more overt and kids would either get pushed or teased in the hallways where people could witness it. Now, bullies can be meaner by texting cruel things from anonymous phone numbers or online accounts. Victims often are too scared or embarrassed to notify their parents and teachers, he said.

That kind of torment has a much stronger impact and stays with children, Ferguson said. It could even lead to a child taking his or her own life, or hurting themselves, he added.

Schools and state legislators are behind the curve in addressing the issue and the state of Colorado does not have a specific law that addresses virtual attacks, Ferguson said. Still, the school district should take the topic on and set an example for others.

“Aspen’s a leader in everything,” Ferguson said. “Why not be a leader in this?”

There is case law that says a school district has the jurisdiction to enforce a policy against bullying as long as the attacks impact the student’s ability to learn. School districts also could be sued if a student takes his or her own life after being bullied, he said.

“I’d rather we error on the side of the victim, than on the First Amendment rights of the kids doing this,” Ferguson said.

The school board agreed to add the policy discussion to a future meeting agenda. Board member Elizabeth Parker noted that about four years ago community resource officers and school administrators hosted a public forum on the topic. It might be time to do that again, she said.

In 2010, a district judge banned an Aspen High School student from using social media to talk about a classmate she allegedly victimized.

After the incident, school administrators and law enforcement increased their outreach to students and parents by incorporating the topic into annual lectures on sexual harassment and date rape.

Ferguson said he realized that cyber-bullying was an issue at the schools after a friend of the family was attacked online. When he shared the story with other parents, many told him that their children had experienced the same thing, he said. Ferguson declined to discuss the details of the person who was bullied in an effort to protect the victim, but the attacks were severe enough to warrant action.

“The incidents that I’m aware of are very far reaching and very painful,” Ferguson said.