Maine joins cyberbullying crackdown, but new law has a twist

Maine has become the latest state to give schools jurisdiction over what K-12 students publish online while off-campus, with a new “cyberbullying” law signed by Gov. Paul Lepage.

But this law comes with a twist that may be unexpectedly useful to students, including censored student journalists — it applies equally to bullying by school employees, including principals, as well as by fellow students.

The measure, L.D. 1237, was signed into law Monday. It defines “bullying” to include acts or communications that create “an intimidating or hostile educational environment” for a student or that interfere “with the student’s academic performance or ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by a school(.)”

It prohibits bullying on school grounds or at school functions, or through the use of technology anywhere, even off campus. According to Education Week, at least 32 states now have bullying laws that specifically apply to online conduct.

The law requires an annual report to the state Commissioner of Education showing how the school responded to each “substantiated” instance of bullying (with names removed to protect student confidentiality).

The law is notable for two wrinkles that make it atypical. First, it requires schools to set up an appeal process that allows the victim to appeal a decision not to discipline the bully; typically, only the person being disciplined may appeal.

Second, the law prohibits bullying not just by students but also by anyone connected with the school, including teachers and administrators. Whether legislators intended it or not, this is a lifeline that censored student journalists should be unafraid to use. Since the law explicitly bans making school an “intimidating” environment and interfering with a student’s ability to benefit from school services, a principal who unjustly threatens students over their legitimate journalistic work is in violation of the law, and a bullying complaint should be brought to the superintendent’s attention.

But will students find themselves punished if they file bullying complaints against their teachers or principals? Under L.D. 1237, retaliation also is prohibited — unless the complaint is knowingly false when made.