published Friday, November 16th, 2012

Hamilton schools move against cyberbullying

Hamilton County Schools now can hold students responsible for cyberbullying that occurs off school campuses.

The school board voted Thursday to add cyberbullying via text messages, social media or other electronic media to its student discrimination, harassment, bullying and intimidation policy. The policy addition states that administrators can regulate violations that happen outside school or school-sponsored activities, if they are directed at a certain student or students and disrupt or create a hostile educational environment.

The move was prompted by a change in state law, though some board members expressed discomfort at policing activity that happens outside schools.

"I just have a hard time with the government -- I don't care if it's the state government, federal government, the local school board -- telling a family what they can and can't do on their computer at home," said school board member Greg Martin. "I think they have the right and the freedom to do whatever they want to do at home."

School board attorney Scott Bennett said he agreed that the change created questions over boundaries.

"Frankly, where the fringe is in regards to the Constitution," Bennett said.

He said school administrators would have to determine whether cyberbullying incidents had created tangible disruption in school. And principals also will have to be more savvy about knowing when to direct issues to law enforcement, Bennett said.

The board voted 8-1 in favor of the policy change, with Martin casting the only dissenting vote. If the changes weren't made, the attorney said, the school district's policy would not be in compliance with state law and state education leaders could withhold state funding.

"And we've seen that this commissioner of education is willing to withhold funds," Bennett said.

In October, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman withheld $3.4 million in state funds from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for its failure to approve a charter school application even after being directed to do so by the State Board of Education.

In other business, the board voted 8-1 to approve a 2013-14 academic calendar that looks much like this year's. Rhonda Thurman voted against the calendar measure.

School officials floated three calendar options, all of which added three instructional days next year. Two options proposed changes or elimination of the district's October fall break. But most teachers and staff members who voted in a district survey preferred the first option, which maintains the weeklong fall break.

A total of 1,581 voted for that option, while 974 voted for the second option. Only 122 voted in favor of the third option that eliminated fall break.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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