The most extreme cyber-bullying cases -- the ones that lead to suicides or jail sentences -- are often so gripping and gory that it's easy to forget they're atypical. Even lawmakers can't see beyond the painful and prurient details of the now-infamous Steubenville High School Rape, or the suicide of 15-year-old Saratoga sophomore Audrie Pott.
Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to penalize students who harass each other online or over text messages outside of normal school hours. The bill's author, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, worked with Pott's family and other bullying victims to propel the legislation, arguing that it aligns anti-bullying laws with current forms of electronic communication. Indeed, insults that would have been scrawled on bathroom walls 20 years ago are the stuff of today's text messages and Facebook posts. A long tradition of playground jeers has moved into cyber-space.
But that doesn't mean school administrators have to police it, critics of the new law say. Sue Porter, Dean of Students at The Branson School in Marin and author of a new book on child bullying, argues that it's not the state's place to legislate against normal forms of aggression.
"I think we're criminalizing children's behavior," Porter says of the law, which allows schools to suspend or even expel students who torment their peers online. She argues that modern forms of bullying aren't really that different from old-school bathroom graffiti, except that they're amplified by the medium.
But it's not a 9-year-old bully's fault if his mean-spirited Facebook post goes viral, or the person who received his text message keeps looking at it and getting more upset, Porter says. She worries that under the new law, a knee-jerk mistake can have severe penalties.
"Now, that 9-year-old can be expelled," she continues. "That puts a huge burden on schools without helping kids learn from their mistakes."
It's unclear whether cyber bullying has rattled student populations in San Francisco, which haven't produced any high-profile cases -- we're still waiting to hear from a San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman. We know, however, that kids in San Francisco are more tech-savvy than their counterparts in other regions of California, and that many of them have smartphones and Facebook profiles.
The new law goes into effect in January.