Smiley Faces and “LOLs” Do Not Mitigate the Effect of Cyberbullying
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 www.whatdoyouchoose.org.
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: