Cyberbullying bill would tie harassment policies to aid

Senator introduces legislation that would require universities to adopt cyberbullying policies to be eligible for financial aid programs

cyber-bullying-billWhen Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge in 2010, the events leading to his death were a painful reminder that cyberbullying is not confined to middle schools.

Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, had used a webcam to film the freshman kissing another male student, and then invited his Twitter followers to join him for a second viewing. Clementi complained to Rutgers officials about the incident, but committed suicide a day later.

Now, two U.S. senators are co-sponsoring a bill named in Clementi’s honor that would require colleges and universities to recognize cyberbullying in its anti-harassment policies.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa., will introduce the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act in the Senate this week. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wi., will co-sponsor the bill, said her press secretary, Leah Hunter.

The bill will amend the Higher Education Act to require colleges and universities to include policy statements about harassment, including cyberbullying, in their annual security reports in order to be eligible for federal student financial aid programs. 

Clementi was not Murray’s only inspiration for the bill. An intern in her office, Kristopher Sharp, was harassed when he was a student at the University of Houston. While Sharp was running for a student government office, homophobic flyers were distributed around campus warning students not to vote for him.

“Want AIDS?” a flyer asked. Sharp has been diagnosed with HIV.

“The university told Kris that the flyers were protected under free speech,” Murray said. “You don’t often think about this happening, but when Kris walked me through his experience, it was clear to me that this could happen to anyone.”

An earlier version of the bill stalled in the House of Representatives last year. Some organizations, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), criticized that bill as being too vague and redundant.

“While outlawing ‘cyberbullying’ may make for a good soundbite on the evening news, the legislation ignores the fact that the behavior we’re apparently now calling ‘cyberbullying’ is already prohibited by colleges and universities across the country; it’s just referred to as discriminatory harassment, intimidation, true threats, or other behavior that is unprotected or illegal,” wrote Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy.

Many colleges and universities do already have harassment policies in place but that isn’t quite good enough, Murray said. Her bill would make sure that every institution receiving federal student financial aid is covered.

Like previous attempts to tie aid with harassment policies, the bill may be a tough sell.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Murray said. “But people need to understand that it’s the right thing to do.”

Nearly 30 percent of students in a 2013 survey said they had witnessed cyberbullying occur at their university, with the majority of the harassment happening on Facebook and Twitter, and through eMail.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Minnesota surveyed 276 students at an unnamed Midwestern university, which added cyberbullying language into its student code while the study was taking place.

More than 20 percent of the respondents said they were uncomfortable reporting cyberbullying to campus officials.

The reluctance makes it difficult for institutions to get a handle on cyberbullying as officials may not know it’s taking place. To get ahead of the issue, some universities, like the University of Virginia, have adopted policies that allow keyword searches of student eMails.

“There’s been a big change at universities in the last two years, where they want to be proactive about this,” said Chris Grossman, senior vice president of enterprise applications at Rand Secure Data. “Going back through someone’s electronic communication after-the-fact, it’s purely reactionary. Modern technology allows universities to be preventative with keyword searches and analysis.”

Rand Secure Data, which provides consulting and software to universities like UVa, urges universities to make sure their policies are clear to students, Grossman said. The searches — part of Rand Secure Data’s eDiscovery software — do not read entire emails, he said, but look for specific keywords that could pertain to threatening behavior.

“This isn’t big brother or a faculty member reading all of a student’s emails,” he said. “Explain that. Put the policy in the student handbook. Let people be informed. They’ll realize that if you do the normal types of communications, their eMails will never fall under the scope of what’s being monitored. It’s only when you fall out of that scope that you have to worry.”

Other universities, such as the University of West Alabama, have implemented policies specifically addressing cyberbullying on social media. At the same time, universities who insist on strictly monitoring student social media have been heavily criticized, even eliciting bipartisan legislation condemning the practice.

The new Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act won’t dictate exactly how harassment policies should be shaped, Murray said, but it will specify that universities address cyberbullying.

“Students going to college shouldn’t think or wonder if there are policies in place to protect them,” Murray said. “They should know.”

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