“They started picking on him, for what, I don’t know, I guess because he was just new,” his mother surmises. She adds that someone has also siphoned gas from her car on two occasions and vandalized part of the fencing around their property.
After the cutting and months of bullying, with no help from school administrators, his mother explains, she took Connor out of the middle school and home-schooled him until the end of the academic year. Perhaps in response, almost jokingly, his mother says, a sign now hangs outside the school’s guidance counselor’s office reading “The Bullying Stops Here.” Because the cyberbullying took place outside of the school, the principal told her they couldn’t punish her son’s tormentors, she says.
The school’s principal responded to requests for comment for this story by referring the Press to its website.
Among other stipulations posted on the site, its Code of Conduct states, “A student shall be subject to disciplinary action in relation to the following… Engaging in conduct and/or behavior that endangers the health, safety and welfare of others. Examples include [but are not limited to]: bullying, intimidation, hazing, threatening, menacing, harassing or assisting others in any of the aforementioned.”
It also states, however, “All principals/administrators are expected to… Promote a safe, orderly and stimulating school environment, supporting active teaching and learning” and “Be responsible for enforcing the code of conduct and ensuring that all cases are resolved promptly and fairly.”
Parents in Connor’s and Isaacs’ position often find themselves in murky territory regarding the ability to hold bullies accountable due to the very nature of cyberbullying, experts say.
“It’s a huge issue because a lot of it is initiated off campus, but it affects life on campus,” says Scott Hirschfeld, director of curriculum for the national nonprofit Anti-Defamation League. “Administrators are often between a rock and a hard place.
“Cyberbullying is boundary-less,” he explains.
Watchdogs such as George Deabold, president and founder of School Watch—an investigative school advocacy group committed to transparency and fiscal responsibility within school districts—argue school administrators do have a responsibility to intervene when off-campus behavior bleeds into the hallways.
Deabold has been involved with the Isaacs’ case for years, he told Suffolk legislators at the May hearing, charging that school districts across the state would much rather “cover up” the problems than attempt to deal with them thoroughly.
“It is necessary to increase the accountability,” he testified. “Schools don’t want you to know what’s going on because they’re coming to you at the end of the year with a smiling face saying, ‘Look what we’re doing.’ They cover up so [many] things that you wouldn’t believe.”
Cooper is not the only lawmaker attempting to make it easier to hold bullies, particularly cyberbullies, accountable. State lawmakers have been wrestling with this gray area for nearly a decade. Recently, the New York State (NYS) Legislature approved and passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which requires mandatory reporting of bullying incidents and the education of students and school administrators against bullying, among other provisions. It’s now awaiting Gov. David Paterson’s signature to become law.
Those dealing with the phenomenon, such as Gail Barouh, Ph.D., chief executive officer and managing director of BiasHELP—a Hauppauge-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing, monitoring and lessening the effects of bias crimes, hate-related harassment and discrimination—hail the legislation’s passage as a positive first step in addressing what can be a life-or-death issue.
“Schools have been really, in some cases, vigorously compliant in this area, and in some places completely non-compliant in taking any kind of responsibility for bullying, because they basically didn’t have to,” she explains. “This bill really makes mandatory reporting [and] education, that there’s no repercussions for people that report [bullying] and it puts much more responsibility on the schools, which is good.”
Barouh admits, however, she is disappointed cyberbullying is not specifically included in the state legislation, especially due to its prevalence among young people and its drastic consequences.
“I honestly and truly feel that bullying and cyberbullying are everywhere, based on the fact that no matter where young people are now, they have a phone—and really that’s what you need is a phone,” she explains.
“What I do see on Long Island that I don’t think is being spoken to—to the same level, that case in Massachusetts, the girl who committed suicide [Phoebe Prince]—I think we have a lot more suicides that are resulting from bullying or cyberbullying and that the families are not either making the connections themselves or giving out that information,” she continues. “I think Long Island in general is facing a lot more of these problems then we have before.”
In contrast to the absence of an established cyberbully-specific state law, Cooper’s new local cyberbullying and cyberstalking bills will give law enforcement in Suffolk County more tools to stop online tormentors. That’s not to say, however, that Internet predators were unmonitored, or untouchable, prior to their passage.
The faceless, nameless cyber thugs who menaced the family of Alexis Pilkington by vandalizing her Facebook account with vile remarks following her suicide in March quickly caught the attention of Detective Rory Forrestal of Suffolk County Police Department’s six-member Computer Crimes Unit.
Forrestal, who spoke at a June cyberbullying workshop hosted by Cooper at Huntington Public Library, refers to such bullies as “trolls”—people with no social life or social skills whatsoever who typically sit in front of a computer all day long and scour the Internet for opportunities to spread hatred and wreak chaos.
The detective explains that Suffolk police established the unit in 1999, and as technology became more sophisticated and accessible, especially from 2003 through 2005, so too did instances of online harassment.
“Everybody’s got broadband connection,” Forrestal tells the Press. “People are getting cell phones a mile a minute, the kids are getting cell phones a mile a minute and your cell phones are not only text-capable right now, but they’re 3G-capable.
“This year has been particularly bad,” he adds, noting that the unit’s work ranges from thwarting Craigslist schemes and cyberstalking crimes, hackers and threatening posts on Facebook and other social networking sites, to monitoring the Web for child pornography.