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Smiley Faces and “LOLs” Do Not Mitigate the Effect of Cyberbullying

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Three Indiana girls were expelled from Griffith Public School last week after a concerned mother provided the school principal with a copy of a malicious Facebook thread about her daughter and other students at the school. In the thread, the three girls discussed different ways to kill their classmates, including putting someone in a bathtub full of acid, lighting someone on fire and different ways to cover up the evidence. These comments were written by young women: teenagers!

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming that they violated the girls’ civil rights when they expelled them on the basis of a personal off-campus conversation. Furthermore, the ACLU claims that the girls’ remarks shouldn’t have been taken seriously as they were accompanied by emoticons (smiley faces) and online shorthand such as LOL and ROFLMAO (Rolling on the Floor Laughing My A** Off), both of which were meant to represent sarcasm. But I think it represents more than that; it represents a concerning reflection of the culture that we’re raising our children in.

The mother who brought it to the principal’s attention doesn’t find anything humorous or sarcastic about the thread, though; and honestly, if you saw your son or daughter’s name in the thread, would you? I certainly wouldn’t.

Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center says “…it doesn’t matter if they did use emoticons…It doesn’t matter if the intent was to joke around…If we look at the content, would we be threatened by it?”

I agree with Justin, however, the ACLU’s comments suggest that the girls’ discussion about killing classmates is moot because of the emoticons and LOLs that followed. “The legal analysis asks whether a reasonable person viewing the conversation would conclude that the girls were about to inflict imminent harm. I think the use of emoticons and other forms of Internet-speak are simply one factor demonstrating that that was not the case,” ACLU attorney Gavin Rose said in an email.

The ACLU’s focus on the school’s decision to expel the girls actually addresses a bigger balancing act that lawmakers and educators have been struggling with: creating universal cyberbullying laws and policies. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue a clear ruling on the boundaries of schools’ power to regulate students’ online speech.

Though the school may have overstepped its authority by penalizing students for off-campus, after-hours speech, Patchin says “It doesn’t necessarily take an actual threat for the school to get involved in disciplining the students…If the target in this case didn’t feel safe to be at school, then the school has the authority to take action.”

I’d like to get some feedback from you.

  • Do you think the ACLU has a legitimate case?
  • Did the school overstep their authority?
  • And more importantly, have you talked to your child about the real-world consequences that can result from creating malicious Facebook pages/profiles, let alone commenting on one?

Learn how you can generate more awareness about bullying and what educators can do to help end bullying in schools by visiting

And while we want your feedback, if you’d like to take a proactive approach to protecting your child from becoming a potential victim of a bully, consider using the following product(s) to help you do so:

Facebook Monitoring Solutions for Parents

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  • Thank you for your post.

    As a parent, educator, anti-bullying activist and the person who first coined the term “cyberbullying”, I would like to share four Websites I have created that seek to prevent bullying through education and awareness. I hope that they may be of help, information and support to others.
    The world’s most visited and referenced Website about bullying
    The world’s first Website about cyberbullying
    Offering Professional research-based, online courses and Webinars about bullying and cyberbullying for educators and parents
    The official Website of the annual Bullying Awareness Week

    I hope that these educational resources may prove helpful to you and your learning community.


    Bill Belsey

    “Where you are NOT alone!”


    Follow us on Twitter: @Bullying_org

  • The ACLU is WRONG to get involved. The school is WRONG to have suspended the girls. Because of both wrong responses – the bullying part is all but forgotten. A much better approach is to use the girls who are doing the bullying as an example of the kinds of things that will not be tolerated in our schools. Consequences over punishment is the key here. Consequences apply directly to the behavior. Punishment has nothing to do with the behavior and everything to do with powwer struggles. Freedom of speech works both ways, not just for the ACLU. The school has the responsibility to keep ALL students safe. Setting up a student/teacher/parent grivance committee – addressing all issues creating unsafe situations is the key to establishing respect for all involved.. Using the bullying girls as an example – perhaps reading the facebook page over the loudspeaker without divulging names and asking the student body to vote on what they feel the consequences should be – providing them 3 multiple choice questions. The ACLU needs to butt out. It’s not their school; it’s not their community; it’s not their students. They’re taking away the opportunity for schools to act in the best interest of their student body. Who better to give consequences to kids than other kids?

  • There used to be a time when you could get away from bullying. But it’s not that way anymore. For kids that are being bullied, it now follows them home and everywhere because so much of the bullying happens online. Lots of kids turn to drastic measures to either protect themselves or hurt themselves. It is so tragic. I talk about online bullying and suicide here:

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