Social media and mobile technology has made it easy for bullies to continue their behavior on every corner of the internet. We’ve shared some tactics that students and adults can use to prepare for and react to cyberbullying that happens on school-provided technology. Sometimes, however, these efforts don’t curtail the harassment, and the time comes to consider legal action. Is cyberbullying illegal? And if so, how are cyberbullying laws enforced?
There is currently no federal law against cyberbullying, but all 50 states have laws against bullying in general—and every state except Alaska and Wisconsin includes an explicit reference to cyberbullying in their anti-bullying laws. StopBullying.gov features an interactive map that gives detailed descriptions of each state’s anti-bullying laws, including what groups are protected and whether that state provides a model policy that educators can use to create anti-bullying policies for their school or district.
The Cyberbullying Research Center focuses on four enforcement tools that parents and schools might consider:
- Criminal sanction: All states have various criminal laws that might apply to bullying behaviors, depending on the nature of the act. For example, if someone is physically hurting another, assault statutes might apply. All states also have criminal harassment and/or stalking statutes, and most include explicit reference to electronic forms.
- School sanction: In certain states, the bullying law specifies provisions allowing the school to discipline students in appropriate and measured ways.
- School policy: In every state except Montana, the bullying law mandates schools to have a formal policy to help with identification of the behavior and discuss the possible formal and/or informal disciplinary responses that can follow. Some laws require certain elements to be included in the policy (such as a specific definition of bullying), while others simply require a policy without specification.
- Off-campus behavior: Federal case law allows schools to discipline students for off-campus behavior that results in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school.
The penalties that schools can impose on cyberbullies vary from state to state. California, for example, allows schools to suspend or expel offenders on a case-by-case basis. In some states, like Massachusetts, schools have the option of using law enforcement to intervene, and can provide information about cyberbullying instances for police investigations.
Laws like this explicitly turn cyberbullying into a legal matter rather than a school disciplinary issue. Whether additional states will follow suit—or if this will be addressed on the federal level—remains to seen, but educators and parents across the country should keep an eye on changes in the laws that protect students online.
Originally posted on May 15, 2018. Content has been updated to reflect changes to cyberbullying laws.