PROVO — Twenty years ago, when the only phone in school was on the principal's desk and the secretary had reins over the building's only typewriter, all educators had to worry about was making sure students played nicely and didn't call each other names.

Now, with cell phones in every pocket and Internet access in every classroom, teachers have a new beast to tame — cyberbullies.

And, at least in Utah, they're not getting a whole lot of backup from the law, said Fred Hartmeister, dean of education and law at Texas Tech University.

Hartmeister dissected the legislative response to bullying in schools Friday at the ninth annual Utah Education Law and Policy Institute. Several hundred Utah educators attended the conference at Brigham Young University.

Utah recently approved an anti-bullying statute, joining 28 other states in the country that have approved similar policies.

HB325 focuses almost entirely on physical bullying, however.

"If someone is forcing you to eat something you don't want to eat, hitting you, physically endangering you, this statute will protect you," Hartmeister said. "If someone's harassing you electronically, it's just not going to help."

Cyberbullying, Hartmeister said, is similar to traditional playground bullying in that it is intended to cause harm and induce fear. But instead of coming home with bruises, cyberbullying victims are coming home with emotional trauma.

Because of the far-reaching and permanent nature of the Internet, cyberbullying has the potential to cause students more long-term distress than traditional bullying, he said.

"In most cases you recover from a negative comment or even a physical incident of bullying," Hartmeister said. "But if a child's been cyberbullied, you can Google that or find it on Facebook. It's there forever. You remain a reoccurring victim."

Children are also more likely to harass their peers virtually than face to face. According to the 2007 Pew Internet & American Life Project, 39 percent of social-networking site users have experienced cyberbullying.

"Why do kids do it? I don't know, there are probably a thousand reasons," Hartmeister said. "There's something appealing about the anonymity of being able to hide behind a computer or a cell phone."

Hartmeister cited several court cases dealing with cyberbullying across the country. In one case, a 13-year-old boy committed suicide after a friend spread rumors about him via text messaging. In another, a student posted comments online offering money to anyone willing to kill her teacher.

There is no discernible judicial trend in cyberbullying cases at this point, he said. Cases went one way or another depending on the context and content of the bullying.

"It's a difficult line to tread," Hartmeister said. "We don't want to pass a law that's going to catch school administrators between First Amendment-protected rights and trying to enact an anti-bullying statute."

Eleven states have statutes that deal specifically with cyberbullying.

Legislation is not enough, however, Hartmeister said. Money needs to be put into anti-bullying training programs as well.

"As it were, legislation hasn't worked in any great way," he said. "It's whether or not schools are successfully implementing these statutes that will have a bearing on the lives of our young people."


E-mail: estuart@desnews.com