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Cyberbullying In San Diego Schools And The First Amendment

September 24, 2013 1:18 p.m.


Ruth Hargrove, Law Professor, California Western School of Law

Police Chief Reuben Littlejohn, SDUSD

Related Story: Cyberbullying In San Diego Schools And The First Amendment


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Recently a school district in Los Angeles County contracted with a security firm to monitor social social media use among students the reason the district wants to prevent issues incidence of cyber bullying. That's just one tactic being explored a school search for a way to prevent intimidation and tragedy arising from bullying comments on the Internet. Just earlier this month at the nation learned of another dazzling to cyber bullying when a 12 year old girl in Florida apparently committed suicide after receiving text messages that told her to go kill yourself. Tonight a panel in San Diego will be held to discuss cyber bullying in the classroom and ask the question can the Constitution reign in the bullies. I'd like to welcome my guests California Western school of Law professor Ruth Hargrove. Ruth, welcome to the program.

RUTH HARGROVE: Thank you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And San Diego Unified police chief Rupert Littlejohn. Chief Littlejohn welcome back to the show.

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: The pleasure is all mine.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Chief, how big a problem would you say that cyber bullying is at San Diego unified?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: At San Diego unified we are no different in terms of what we are dealing with in any other school district other than the fact that we are a little larger so what we've done is taken a proactive stance and partnered with the San Diego police foundation safety program and Internet crimes against children task force to look at this and get out to the information in the hands about cyber bullying.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For the incidents of cyber bullying, how do you find out about it in the first place?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: Let's talk about cyber bullying is and what constitutes if you're impersonating another person by creating an identity in the aim of another certainly that's a form of cyber bullying. If you're using hate speech or name-calling that is clearly cyber bullying. If you're on the Internet and posting something that someone has asked you not to post we consider that cyber bullying and obviously if you are threatening someone, that is cyber bullying. So when you talk about cyber bullying as a whole and how it can come in many different forms that's how we address it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But actually do kids come up to you and say , Chief, I've got a problem, is there somewhere, is there an intermediary, do they go to the counselor and told him, how do you find out?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: It could come directly with a call to the police department or can come by way of a school official calling us and letting us know and sometimes parents who are concerned say hey, Ofc. Can you get involved in this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What you do when you hear about it?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: We right away contact the San Diego Police Department and what we want to do is work with them and because these things are going on in the community and homes but there are some recent legislation allows us here in the state of California as a school district indiscipline for those types of behavior even though it didn't occur on school grounds.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruth Hargrove, I'd like to get your opinion on what Reuben just mentioned in the going through the private firm looking for keywords and phrases that might indicate cyber bullying what is your reaction to that?

RUTH HARGROVE: What does this really interesting constitutional issues and privacy issues obviously and one of the things that Chief Littlejohn mentioned is that in order for the school to act on cases of cyber bullying, they, the cyber bullying somehow has to make its way into the school. The school does not have unfettered power to reach into the community and regulate speech on the Internet. It is difficult to do. There is a case in California not that long ago where a girl you know a classic mean girl got together with her classic mean girlfriends and set across the street from the school in a coffee shop and videotaped each other making really nasty comments about a girl who wasn't present. Posted to the Internet, on YouTube, notified a bunch of kids by e-mail, look at this nasty thing we just posted. The victim was distraught. The school learned about it when the mom of the victim brought the poster to the school's attention. The school discipline the mean girl, the ringleader, and she successfully school sued the school for violation of her First Amendment rights. So in order for the school to discipline speech that originates off campus, it basically has to come to the campus somehow and it's going to cause order to cause a substantial disruption in the learning environment. The school just doesn't have the ability to regulate everything we might want it to regulate on behalf of our kids.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a question that if indeed this were a fight, physical fight between students and if it were off campus could the next day the school discipline the students or would it have to occur on campus for them to discipline the students?

RUTH HARGROVE: Yeah I think it can only discipline the students if somehow there is an impact that find its way into the school and disrupts the school environment. And that's actually a pretty heavy burden. The cases they even having kids talk a lot about something on the Internet, mere buzz is not enough. So there's definitely some tension between our desire to protect our kids and our desire to protect our Constitution. It's a classic dilemma we see everywhere. All over.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Chief Littlejohn, you mentioned that when the district is trying to educate parents and students about the full range of cyber bullying, how is the district going about that? Trying to educate kids and parents question

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: Well, what we have looked at is when kids actually have the access to social networks, and that begins around age 13, most of the providers to allow them to establish their own accounts until age 13. Around sixth, between then and 10th grade there are classroom presentations that go on that build that awareness and to use a friend of mines expression, we no longer talk about a foot. On the Internet. Now we are talking about a tattoo. Because what people don't understand is that what they write on the Internet is there forever and while there is some legislation afoot about giving parents the ability to scrub those social networks clean so that there are things that their kids they will not be there forever, we cannot stop the fact that some people have access to take a snapshot or a picture of that screen and save that to their hard drive before it is scrubbed. So, giving these kinds of lessons and talking about the predators that are out there, talking about the harmful effects of sexting and sending provocative pictures by way of the Internet as well as cyber bullying as what are we targeting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder, I was fascinated by, Ruth, your explanation about on-campus and off-campus and the First Amendment and what schools can do. How would it be possible therefore for this LA County school district to analyze all of the social media used by the students in looking for cyber bullying. Is that school just basically opening itself up for a lawsuit should anybody find anything would it be difficult for the students to prove that they actually weren't sending messages from school?

RUTH HARGROVE: That I don't think would necessarily be so difficult. I can probably tell if the messages are coming from at least if they're coming from a school computer. I would imagine that it would be more difficult to tell if it were coming from school from a personal device. But I think the question is that the time that schools usually get in trouble, when they try to interfere on these things is if they overreact. If they do something short of suspending a student short of disciplining them, if they take action short of that, they are much less likely to get themselves in trouble in terms of violating somebody's rights. But, yeah, I'd be really interested to see what they have in mind in terms of how they're going to use this data.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes because I want to ask you both this question, too, it would seem to me that most parents would think that a school has some responsibility in protecting students from this kind of bullying. This is where these young people meet each other. This is where they interact with one another. This is where these rivalries and so forth would originate. And therefore I would imagine that parents would expect the schools to intervene in some way but what you are telling me, Ruth is that the intervention is rather limited.

RUTH HARGROVE: It is fraught with difficulty and of course it's very tough on the parents because they send their kids to school assuming that the school will keep their kids safe. That is just a you know, they are lucky if they learn something along the way, but at least they are safe. And we all know that is not the case and I think that one of the things about cyber bullying that I've learned which is fascinating is that it hasn't really taken the place of on-campus polling. It's now just a new adjunct to it. It's one more way to torture the perceived weak. And I do think that schools can have a significant impact, though, and taking the lead in educating kids and instead of perhaps being reactive I know that a lot of schools are trying to be proactive. And prophylactic. And they are trying to educate kids about how harmful this conduct is. And I think that's, and I think that can be very useful there. It is one more thing we are asking them to do for our kids. And they can set a good example themselves in terms of how they treat the kids.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about that in just a second but chief Littlejohn do you ever have to deal with parents basically on the phone to you, or another counselor in San Diego unified why can't you stop this you know this is happening. Sort of outraged that from their point of view nothing is being done?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: We do hear that from time to time but really the solution to this is communication and education. I don't always agree with everything everybody said Andrew said that our schools and I know she didn't mean it from the standpoint were not save completely, obviously they are not 100% safe but I think they are very safe. Especially when we are communicating with parents about what type of activity is going on. So if we tell the parent of a perpetrator that this type of activity is going on the parents often intervene and there is no need for school discipline. There's no need for law enforcement action. So in that case I think it does create a safe environment because we do is work together as a community to create a safety net.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Ruth, we've been talking about peer to peer cyber bullying. There's also concern about what people are calling cyber bullying from teachers to students or even from schools to students. How does that happen?

RUTH HARGROVE: What happens is that I think is a dozen all bullying cases is that there is an unequal power relationship between the victim and the bully her. And my experience in representing kids who have been disciplined by schools including San Diego unified I've seen examples where it seemed very clear to me that the school had actually been setting, administrators have been setting a very unfortunate example to the students print and actually probably unwittingly and perhaps with the best of intentions but still setting up a situation where they themselves engaged in cyber bullying.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an example?

RUTH HARGROVE: I can. I represented the students, several of the students who were suspended for sexual harassment for their part in the now infamous twerking video. And what happened in that case was my clients were three girls really were cyber bullied by a boy at school who videotaped them and then without their permission and against their explicit instruction posted the videos to the Internet. And when those girls agree to be videoed, they believed they were participating in a school project. The kid was using school equipment. He had multimedia credentials the school had some responsibility for allowing the situation to happen. Anyway, this kit adds vocal music, vulgar lyrics, says all kinds of nasty things about the girls and posted to the Internet. The school was understandably horrified when that happened. But from my perspective instead of doing kind of a fair and considered investigation the decision was made very quickly to suspend the students regardless of their involvement and ultimately done decision was reversed under Marty (inaudible) leadership for which she has to take some significant credit for what happened in that case. My feeling was that the school really number one failed to protect the girls from the bullying they had experienced at the hands of this boy, and then perpetuated the problem by accusing them of sexual harassment was completely inaccurate. And then when the kids' parents protested to the school board there was a real circle the wagons mentality that happened and there is now on the Internet for anybody to see a letter that purports to be from the counselors at the school. To the school board and it made its way to the Internet accusing these girls of pornographic behavior. To me, that is cyber bullying.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it seems to me from what you both are saying that we have entered into a world here between students and students and students in schools and teachers and students that nobody really has gotten a handle on yet that the laws have not kept up and perhaps even people's awareness has not kept up to as you say this tattoo that lingers after anything is put on the Internet. I'm wondering chief Littlejohn, you said that sometimes you tell the parents and they will take care of it themselves. One, from your expertise should parents look for that may indicate that there are signs that there is a cyber bullying event taking place perhaps in their children's lives. What should they watch out for?

REUBEN LITTLEJOHN: First thing is, if they haven't already done so establish a relationship with the school and the administration. If that line of communication going. We have a safe schools advisory group in the district where we communicate about this and we have a student student anti-bullying policy and antiharassment and take intimidation policy that exist in the parents helped us with that. In addition to that we are looking at this kindness we are trying to perpetuate throughout the entire community including the adults that work in campus and the adults I hope that's what we want to do on the front and beyond that I want to encourage parents to play a proactive role in establishing a social network accounts of their kids, knowing what is going on as far as that is concerned if they are on its grant, Facebook, twitter, knowing about what sites they visit as well they have to monitor that and establish it on the front and with the child to say I recognize you want your own privacy but as her parent I have a responsibility and obligation to monitor your behavior and also letting them know that if you experience bowling or witness behavior that is questionable I need you to bring that to my attention and we may need to report that to the school or the police etc. Finally what I want the parents to know is that you can always rely on your friends and your peers to befriend your own kids and what that does is allows you another set of eyes or ears on what's going on because your kids don't all necessarily want your friends on the social network sites but they might befriend a friend, uncle, cousin that you can trust.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to tell you the US attorney Laura Duffy will be monitoring a panel my two guests will be on tonight is for legal professionals on the topic of cyber bullying it is that the San Diego County Bar Association conference center. I've been speaking with California Western school of Law Prof. Ruth Hargrove and San Diego unified school district police chief Reuben Littlejohn. Thank you both very much.


RUTH HARGROVE: Thank you so much.