Ed Law and Cyberbullying

Sep 16, 2017 by

Understanding school legal liabilities in today’s interconnected world for school administrators can lead to proactive policy implementation.

School Leaders and their Legal Role in Cyberbullying

There are multitude forms of bullying. It is an insidious evil in our schools and can lead to long term psychological damage to a young person. Bullying can have a negative impact on the learning community of a class and prevent many students from fulfilling their academic potential. Since 1972 there has been a legal obligation of school leaders in both private and public schools to stamp out bullying in all its forms. This has only been partially successful. Technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives and especially about how we communicate with each other. However, the internet and especially social media have been used for a new form of cyberbullying. This can be defined as a form of intimidation, cruelty and taunting that occurs during any form of digital communication over a range of devices.

It is an imperative that every school leader does everything that they can to stop cyberbullying.  They should do it for ethical and educational reasons but also to minimize the risk that they or their school could become liable for the consequences of cyberbullying.

The Law and Cyberbullying

It is now the case that in just over half of the states in the Union, cyber bullying is outlawed. Perpetrators can be prosecuted, depending on their age. If the cyberbullying results in victims taking drastic actions such as self-harm this could lead to the perpetrators of cyberbullying being charged with felonies. Some have argued that cyberbullying since it usually takes place off school premise and outside school times is not a concern of the school and they are not liable for any occurrences of cyberbullying.  This may not be the case. There are now many laws that not only prohibit cyberbullying but expect those who are responsible for a young person’s welfare to do all they can to prevent such behavior. It is important that a school leader is familiar with the laws in relation to cyberbullying in their state.  They need to know their duty under the law about cyberbullying. In 2010, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prohibited cyberbullying. The authorities included educational authorities such as school principals and district superintendents have a legal duty to prevent this form of activity. This included notifying parents and law enforcement in many instances. Most of the states do not demand such actions from the local school leaders. While schools in some states are not going to be prosecuted if instances of cyberbullying take place among their students they may be liable to be sued for damages Any student who believes that they did not receive the full protection of their school could technically seek damages for the emotional and psychological distress caused by cyberbullying. This may involve the school in a long and costly legal case that could result in heavy damages being imposed on a school. There are two basic types of schools in America and they are private and public schools. There is a lack of clarity with regard as to whether private schools, which are not publicly funded are covered by anti-cyber bullying laws. It is safe to assume that any private school in a state that has cyberbullying laws may be covered by the terms of the legislation and may consider itself liable for some of the consequences of cyberbullying.

Legal Issues in Cyberbullying

While most cyberbullying takes place off-campus and outside of school. There is a possibility that they could be held responsible in the courts and may be forced to pay hefty compensation to the victims. If the school authorities did not actively prevent it they may even be found culpable. The issue is not so clear-cut when it comes to bullying that takes place off campus. Many of those engaged in cyberbullying have claimed that they have a right under the First Amendment, as in the case of Kara Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, et al. This was rejected by the court and the content of the digital communications were such that it posed a threat to the wellbeing of a student and it could disturb the school. Only responsible and reasonable free speech is permitted.   The fear of invading a persons’ privacy and right to free speech should not constrain any efforts to halt cyber bullying, but a school leader need to proceed with caution. There are no clear precedents as to how a school should proceed with regard to cyber bullying that occurs among its student body that occurs outside of the school. The exact legal obligations with regard to cyberbullying are not really established. One of the most sensible options for a school leader to ensure that they are not liable is to make sure that their policies are aligned with existing bullying legislation. They should adopt the following in order to ensure that they do not face any legal actions over cyberbullying.

  • Take cyberbullying seriously and report any instances to the relevant families or even law enforcement.
  • Have definite anti cyberbullying policies in place. Educate all staff and students about these and make clear that anyone in contravention of these could be suspended or worse.
  • Students must be made aware that it is illegal and unethical and that it causes irreparable harm.
  • School leaders must strive to create an environment where any form of bullying is unacceptable (Bhat, 2008).

If a school leader is seen to be proactive with regard to cyberbullying then their potential liability for the consequences of this unpleasant activity is limited.

Comment on how is your school or school district moving towards increased understanding of cyberbullying?


Cyberbullying, law, bullying, legal liability, liability, off-campus bullying, social media legislation


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Campbell, M. A. (2005). Cyber bullying: An old problem in a new guise? Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 15(1), 68-76. Retrieved from: http://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-psychologists-and-counsellors-in-schools/article/cyber-bullying-an-old-problem-in-a-new-guise/6BACCB0B9F027416CB527B72421C3EEC

Erb. Todd D. (2008). Case for Strengthening School District Jurisdiction to Punish Off-campus Incidents of Cyberbullying, A. Ariz. St. LJ, 40, 257. Retrieved from: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/arzjl40&div=12&id=&page=

Hozien, W. (2016, October 11). Cyberbullying: A Proactive Approach. Education News. Retrieved from: http://www.educationviews.org/cyberbullying-proactive-approach/

Shariff, S., & Hoff, D. L. (2007). Cyber bullying: Clarifying legal boundaries for school supervision in cyberspace. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 1(1), 76-118. Retrieved from: http://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/33f0/c49394d7f78bb8a223548953e4dd832427b4.pdf

Wang, J., Iannotti, R. J., & Nansel, T. R. (2009). School bullying among adolescents in the United States: Physical, verbal, relational, and cyber. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(4), 368-375.Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X09001384





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