Biden addresses IRSD employees on cyberbullying, reporting
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden and Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis spoke to teachers, administrators and other Indian River School District employees this week on the topics of cyberbullying and mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. The pair spoke at Indian River High School first, and then Dailey spoke at Sussex Central High School later in the morning, in an effort to accommodate all district staff.
“We just didn’t have to deal with this growing up,” Biden said of cyberbullying, adding that he remembers when parents’ go-to messages when dealing with these issues was that kids won’t remember things on Monday and that kids move on.
“That doesn’t happen today. It’s like writing with a Sharpie on a banner. It’s permanent. The ability kids have today to amplify the mean things they say and do to each other... How do you tell your kid to go to school knowing that that God-awful thing that was said about them —whether it’s true or not — everybody knows about it?
“The reality is the schoolyard bully doesn’t exist anymore. The schoolyard bully follows you home on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.”
He gave the audience of school district employees the number for the State’s bullying hotline, 1-800-220-5414, and explained that they get “calls, multiple calls, every day because of how prevalent bullying is.”
Biden said 160,000 students skip school nationwide every day because of bullying, a third of all students report having been bullied and a million students have been “cyberbullied.”
In addition, he said statistics show 1 in 4 girls will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, and 1 in 6 boys. But only 1 in 10 ever reports it, and nine times out of 10, the abuser “knows or says they love the kid they rape or abuse.”
He also said every citizen in Delaware has a mandatory duty to report suspected abuse to the Division of Family Services. The office has a goal of training 35,000 people through Darkness to Light, a training program for child sexual abuse prevention and stewardship to children.
Lewis spoke at length about mandatory reporting requirements, saying that, even if a district has a policy in place, there is still a personal responsibility to report suspected child abuse. She explained that there are monetary damages that can be assessed and also criminal charges that could be filed, if more harm comes to the child after the abuse is observed and not reported.
“Please understand: It’s a mandatory report [to the Division of Family Services]. It’s OK if it is deemed to be unsubstantiated, but you have covered yourself. We are clear in our mission and in carrying it out. I would rather be here with you, doing the education piece, than filing lawsuits,” she added.
Lewis said children die every day and mentioned two deaths that occurred just this week. “Everybody’s a reporter. Make the report.”
On the subject of sexual relationships between school employees and students, Lewis was direct. “Again, this is a fairly easy lesson plan: No. Any relationship with a student, regardless of their age, is inappropriate and a recipe for disaster.”
She answered some questions from the audience, one being how reporting laws come into play when a student known to be younger than 16 is pregnant.
“Does anybody know the age of consent in Delaware?” she asked the audience.
Statutory rape nothwithstanding, she said, the hard-line age of consent in Delaware is 12 years old. “So, if you have a student under 12 or one that is 12 and 6 months but eight months pregnant, there is a crime, per se.”
While Delaware sets 18 as its age of consent, 12- to 17-year-olds can consent with a partner of similar age. But those 12 or younger cannot, in any circumstance.
Delaware has taken steps to control the problem of cyberbullying. In July, Gov. Jack Markell signed two cyberbullying-related bills into law, following up on the efforts of Biden and Lt. Gov. Matt Denn.
“Education is one of my top priorities,” said Markell in July, “and having a safe, secure learning environment is fundamentally important to a child’s education. These bills will increase the safety of young people in our schools.”
Senate Bill 193 will result in the implementation of the state’s first uniform policy to combat cyberbullying in public schools, including elements aimed at addressing cyberbullying that happens beyond the school campus.
Biden posed the question of what happens when something that happens on the boardwalk or the mall or somewhere outside of school gets brought into the hallways.
“Is it the school’s issue to take care of? How do you deal with it?”
He said there was a need for uniformity because of the issue of free speech associated with social media or Internet usage, adding that the first district that came up with a policy expressed fears about getting sued.
Denn and Biden began the process of drafting the statewide cyberbullying policy this spring by holding statewide public hearings to gather factual evidence from school administrators and parents about the type of off-campus activity causing disruption in schools.
Biden said the policy is being drafted now, and an added protection for school districts would be representation by the AG’s office should they need it. “If and when we come up with the policy, if there is a lawsuit, my office will defend against the lawsuit,” he promised.
He said that, while he does not represent the school districts per se, the job of the Office of the Attorney General is to be “responsible for the 850,000 citizens of the state.”
In July, Denn said, “As I have visited middle schools and high schools over the past two school years, cyberbullying has consistently been raised with me by principals and teachers as a real problem that stops them from focusing on educating kids. This statewide policy will allow schools to clearly tell students what type of social media conduct is unacceptable, and it will provide legal support from the Attorney General’s office for districts where the policy is challenged.”
In addition, House Bill 268 will help protect students against bullying by adding consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by schools.
According to the governor’s office, the legislation addresses a lack of consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by school districts. Under this legislation, the state Department of Education will begin auditing a small number of public schools each year to ensure that schools are properly investigating and reporting suspected incidents of bullying.
Additionally, school districts will now be required to report both substantiated and unsubstantiated incidents of bullying to the state Department of Education, so the Department can determine if some schools or districts are failing to properly investigate or report claims of bullying.
In July, Biden said, “There is a huge variation in how our schools report bullying. We have some small elementary schools that report many times the number of bullying incidents as major high schools. If we are going to combat bullying, we need to know where it is happening, and this legislation will ensure that we have that information at hand.”
He elaborated on that this week, saying that 55 percent of the incidents reported came from three school districts, under their old reporting policy, and a school with 300 students had 38 reports whereas a larger school, with 2,000 students, had none.
State Rep. Terry Schooley (D-Newark) was the lead House sponsor of both bills and said that bullying has become a serious problem in schools, and with more and more students using social media, bullying has progressed beyond playground taunts. The two bills are intended to help increase reporting of all instances and address the emerging issue of cyberbullying.
“Bullying in any form creates fear and intimidation in our schools, and it leads to students performing poorly, not going to school for fear of being bullied or, in some cases, committing suicide,” said Schooley in July. “When you take into account that means of communication, such as social media, computers and cell phones, post information far more publicly than previous generations could ever imagine, the issue becomes even more serious. By signing these bills into law, we are trying to increase reporting and stay ahead of the curve to protect our children and grandchildren.”