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Pennsylvania Law Makes Cyberbullying of a Child a Third-Degree Misdemeanor

This law will help Northern York School District crack down on the issue, as reports from students on such issues could end up being a criminal matter.

by Jessica Schladebeck, The York Dispatch, Pa. / July 27, 2015

(TNS) -- The face of a bully has changed over the years.

Technology has come to replace the glaring student who pushes others down on the playground or the mean girl who uses word of mouth to spread her gossip.

Smartphones and social media have opened an entirely new door for classroom bullies, who are no longer limited to the classroom.

"A lot of these social media issues are occurring when students are not at school," said Pennsylvania's Southeastern School District Superintendent Rona Kaufmann. "And oftentimes what happens through social media comes into the school in one way, shape or form, just because of the sheer amount of people who have access to it."

Taking action: Northern York School District recently implemented rules for online behavior — for students, athletes and staff — to combat cyberbullying.

Superintendent Eric Eshbach echoed Kaufmann's concerns about cyberbullying.

"It is a daily effort because a large majority of it doesn't go on in the school building; it goes on after school hours," he said. "We are definitely having conversations and encouraging students to report on any issues."

Those reports could end up being a criminal matter under a new state law, Act 26, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed on July 10 and which takes effect in September.

Cyberharassment, as defined by Act 26, is making malicious statements about a child's physical characteristics, sexuality, sexual activity, or mental or physical health. Cyberharassment could be made electronically, either directly to the child or through a social media site.

The law makes cyberharassment of a child a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to $2,500 in fines and possible jail time.

Prevention: More than half of the country's young people have reported that they have been cyberbullied, and among those who reported incidents, one-third said their bullies issued online threats, according to 2014 bullying statistics published by the antibullying website

"It's a real problem that presents a real challenge," Kaufmann said of cyberbullying. "I think the real key to prevention is early education."

Kaufmann said Southeastern heavily focuses on lower-level students with its antibullying initiative.

"They have cell phones in elementary school now, and the earlier we can reach them, the better," she said.

School officials have incorporated antibullying lessons into curriculum, including in high school communications and computer classes and some English classes in the lower grades.

There's particular focus on intermediate students, because they all have laptops, "and we want them to be able to handle them responsibly," she said.

The district has an incentive program that rewards moral behavior, "basically this fake money that they can use at the school store to get themselves prizes and things."

Parents: School leaders in Northern enforce antibullying rules on a case-by-case basis, Eshbach said.

"The word 'bullying' is way too general for me," he said. "I hear people claim their children are being bullied, so I ask them to tell me the specifics. What kind of harassment are you feeling? Is there a need to involve law enforcement? Should there be harsh penalties or is this something we can handle with classroom consequences?"

He said it's best to be specific about what type of bullying is occurring and "then take each of those incidents and give it the appropriate amount of credibility and treat it appropriately."

Eshbach said parents are key in preventing bullying.

Kaufmann agreed.

"Especially with anything online, parents need to keep an eye out," she said. "It's difficult to be constantly policing, but so many times parents are completely unaware of what their children are doing on the computer."

It's all about teamwork, Eshbach said.

"We need to come together and really keep an eye on what students are doing online," he said.

©2015 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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