Md. legislators approve bill aimed at curbing cyber-bullying

MARYLAND — A bill that will require public schools to developa policy prohibiting cyber-bullying and other forms of intimidation has passedboth houses of the state legislature as of April 3 and now awaits action by thegovernor.

Alex Grudger, a legislative aide for HB199 sponsor Del. Craig L. Rice, said the bill is a step toward making schools safer. And while public schools agreedthat bullying is a problem, “to have one more thing on their plate washard to digest,” Grudger said.

The bill requires the state board of education to develop a model policyprohibiting bullying in schools, and it requires each county board to adoptits own policy by July 1, 2009 based on the model.

Unlike some other cyber-bullying laws, Maryland’s bill says even ifthe harassment takes place off school grounds, as long as it”substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a school,”administrators can report the incident.

The bill defines “bullying, harassment, or intimidation” asanything that is “threatening or seriously intimidating” and createsa hostile educational environment by interfering with a student’seducation, or their physical or psychological well-being. Unlawful bullyingincludes harassment “motivated by an actual or a perceived personalcharacteristic,” such as race, sex, religion or disability.

The prohibition against bullying covers “intentional conductincluding verbal, physical, or written conduct, or an intentional electroniccommunication.”

Grudger said the attorney general’s office testified in favor of thebill, saying if the effects are manifested on school grounds, then it should notmatter if cyber-bullying takes place at home or elsewhere.

But David L. Hudson Jr. of the First Amendment Center said theschool’s power extending off-campus creates a “bit of tension in theFirst Amendment arena as to just how far school jurisdiction extends.”

“There’s no doubt that [the bill] is well-intentioned, but thequestion is whether it’s going to sweep too much speech within itsreach,” Hudson said.

And while schools have a duty to provide a safe learning environment,administrators will have to distinguish between actual bullying and content thatothers simply find to be hostile.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education,said the department supports the bill and is working to create a policy.

If signed into law, the bill will make Maryland one of 14 states with lawsagainst cyber-bullying. Six other states have bills pending. Gov. MartinO’Malley has until July to sign the bill, according to Grudger.

“We don’t know how far this is going to go in terms of how theschools are going to be able to do it, but it’s a beginning,”Grudger said. “Many people that did testify as people who had been bulliedfelt that the schools had not taken their issues seriously.”