INTERNET LAW - Bullying and Cyber-Bullying Prohibited under Florida Law

Martha L. Arias, Immigration and Internet Law Attorney, Miami; IBLS Director
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Bullying and, in particular, cyber-bullying is becoming a frequent practice among the American youth. Incidents are reaching such daunting results that state legislatures are rapidly adopting measures. For instance, Florida Legislature adopted an anti-bullying, including cyber-bullying, law on April 2008. The law is called "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" (Fla. Stat. section 1006.147), named after Jeffrey Johnston, a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide after being the object of bullying, including Internet bullying, for two years. This new Florida law prohibits bullying and harassment of any public K-12 student or employee, and requires public schools to adopt measures to protect students and employees from the physical and psychological effects of bullying and harassment.

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Bullying and, in particular, cyber-bullying is becoming a frequent practice among the American youth.  Incidents are reaching such daunting results that state legislatures are rapidly adopting measures.  For instance, Florida Legislature adopted an anti-bullying, including cyber-bullying, law on April 2008. The law is called "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" (Fla. Stat. section 1006.147), named after Jeffrey Johnston, a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide after being the object of bullying, including Internet bullying, for two years.  This new Florida law prohibits bullying and harassment of any public K-12 student or employee, and requires public schools to adopt measures to protect students and employees from the physical and psychological effects of bullying and harassment.

The Florida Senate, quoting to a report by SafeYouth.org, stated that "bullying behavior can involve direct attacks, such as hitting, threatening or intimidating, maliciously teasing or taunting, name-calling, making sexual remarks, and stealing or damaging belongings, or more subtle, indirect attacks such as spreading rumors or encouraging others to reject or exclude someone."   It also stated that bullies are four times more likely than non-bullies to be convicted of a crime by age 24, with 60% of bullies having at least one criminal conviction.    

Thus, this Florida law is considered a safety measure for schools and the Florida community.  Section 1006.147, titled "Bullying and Harassment Prohibited," proscribes bullying and harassment in Florida''''s K-12 public educational institutions; in any educational program or activity conducted by an educational institution; or through the use of data or software accessed by a computer, computer system, or computer network of a K-12 public educational institution.   Hence, using the school e-mail network, even while at home, to bully or harass other students is prohibited by this Florida law.  The law expressly defines "bullying" as the act of systematically or chronologically inflicting physical harm or emotional distress on a student.  The law also provides examples of conducts that may result in bullying:

 1.  Teasing;
 2.  Social exclusion;
 3.  Threat;
 4.  Intimidation;
 5.  Stalking;
 6.  Physical violence;
 7.  Theft;
 8.  Sexual or racial harassment;
 9.  Public humiliation; or
10.  Destruction of property.

Harassment is defined as any verbal, written, or physical conduct that threatens, insults, or dehumanizes public school students or employees.  Written harassment includes those committed through electronic means and the use of computer software.  The conduct must be sufficient to place the student or employee in reasonable fear of harm against him or his property; and sufficient to interfere with the student"s school performance, opportunities, or benefits.   The Florida anti-bullying law also penalizes those who induce or coerce others to bully or harass public school students or employees.  Students, parents, volunteers, or employees that promptly and in good faith report bullying acts will be exempted from civil cause of actions against them. 

The Florida anti-bullying law also mandates each school district to adopt a code of conduct against bullying and harassment by December 1, 2008.   This code of conduct must protect all students regardless of their status under the law but the school districts are authorized to create student categories when drafting their school policies.   In any event, the code of conduct must include a general prohibition of bullying and harassment; a definition of these terms; an expected student conduct and behavior; description of the consequences of falsely and wrongfully accusing others of bullying and harassment; the procedures for reporting bullying and harassment incidents, including anonymous reports; a procedure for the prompt investigation of these acts; a procedure to determine whether the acts are within the district school system; a procedure to notify parents and criminal authorities; a procedure to refer victims to counseling; among others. 

The Florida Department of Education affords an additional protection for victims of bullying and harassment by, first, monitoring district school activities, including transportation, through permanent collection of data (24 hours a day, 7 days a week); and second, enhancing the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System (SESIR).  This program allows district schools to report bullying activities and conducts an annual database management workshop. 

The Florida anti-bullying and harassment law is definitely well received and the first intent to control youth behavior, including Internet behavior.  Yet, questions arise as to the consequences incurred when violating this law.  It is not clear under the text of this law whether its violation merely includes school disciplinary actions or whether subsequent criminal actions will be sought.  This is an important question whose answer is yet to come. 

Law and sociology have been close partners for centuries; another important question is where are the parents parenting?  A sociological answer to this question might take us to the genesis of most bullying and harassment problems which is essential for state legislatures and school officials.         

Martha L. Arias, Immigration and Internet Law Attorney, Miami; IBLS Director

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