In a recent incident in which local teens "cyberbullied" a fellow Palo Alto student, school district officials said they helped remove the offending website and notified the parents of "six or eight" perpetrators who are students at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
The bullying occurred over the weekend of Feb. 28, when some students created a Facebook "I Hate..." group targeting another student. The Internet group quickly gained up to 100 members and included vicious comments against the student as well as some posts in the student's defense. School district officials, who learned of the activity over the weekend, helped remove the Facebook group early on Monday, March 2.
District Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence said there was "a tremendous amount of discussion" among principals and administrators about what to do in the case because the incident occurred off campus and did not involve school property.
"It puts us in a little bit of a space where we don't have specific jurisdiction for that," Laurence said.
Current school district policies on harassment and student behavior clearly cover incidents that happen on school campuses or are school-related, he said.
Postings on the "I Hate..." group came from communities outside Palo Alto as well as from students within, Laurence noted.
"The parents of the students that were identified by the school as being involved were called and told it was inappropriate," he said.
"But when you start talking about absolutes or 'do we know exactly' (who was involved) the answer is 'no.' There were postings from San Francisco, Millbrae and other places."
"The (offending) students actually didn't know how to take (the "I Hate" group) down, so our staff helped them," Laurence said. Beyond notifying parents and helping to remove the postings, the district took no further discipline, he said.
A new law that took effect January 1 gives schools authority to suspend or expel students for bullying fellow students over the internet, in text messaging or by other electronic means.
"So why hasn't PAUSD acted, even after this law came into effect?" wrote one participant in the Silicon Valley Moms Blog. "We're in Silicon Valley for God's sake--this is where technological innovation happens!"
Other parents called for the perpetrators' expulsion or publication of their names so that college admissions officer would be aware of their involvement. Several bloggers also said Facebook should have taken action in the incident.
Others said no school district involvement was needed since the bullying occurred off campus and school officials already "have enough on their plates."
Laurence said he is updating the school district's policies and procedures to reflect new state laws on cyberbullying, disruptive behavior and harassment.
Simon Axten of Facebook's Privacy and Public Policy section said, "We take this issue very seriously and encourage people to report content that singles out and attacks an individual or group."
Axten pointed out Facebook links for reporting troublesome content. "Our User Operations team will review the content and remove it if it violates our policies," he said.
Laurence and others noted the district and PTA have cooperated extensively in recent years to bring anti-bullying programs to the schools and to integrate anti-bullying education into the curriculum.
"The issue of bullying in general has been a pretty high priority on the radar screen, particularly at the elementary levels amongst principals," said school board Chair Barb Mitchell.
The PTAs have sponsored a wide array of anti-bullying programs and invited a Facebook representative to speak to Paly parents, according to Dan Dykwel, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.
"Often it's self-regulating," Dykwel said of online discussions. "If somebody posts something nasty, kids descend on them and say, 'Stop this.'"
Cyberbullying is a form of hazing, Dykwel said.
"It's all the same thing—just a different form. Now, when you see the kids so empowered at such a young age with these different tools—when 10 year olds in the grocery store are texting—it's a whole different challenge to model appropriate behavior."