The universal utilization of the Internet, smartphones, and laptops have engendered new kind of bully on the school playground: cyberbullying. What makes cyberbullying an especially dangerous form of bullying is that it often takes place off campus. While schools unquestionably have the authority to punish bullies who threaten or harm children on school grounds, their authority to punish bullying that takes place on the Internet and oftentimes at home is a more difficult issue. As of yet, there is no comprehensive federal law addressing cyberbullying. In turn, the states have largely taken it upon themselves to define and punish cyberbullying offenses. Because cyberbullying is primarily a state-law crime, each state has its own definition and scope of cyberbullying.
The internet and its anonymous and instantaneous character are ripe breeding grounds for cyberbullying. Largely due to social media sites and other forms of instantaneously messaging and posting capabilities, a new form of bullying has emerged: cyberbullying. Each day, millions of school-age children use the internet. Many children use the internet unsupervised, and this can give rise to severe consequences. The explosion of internet usage and technology among teenagers in particular has made cyberbullying an ever-increasing problem that schools administrators and officials must face.
Speaking in broad terms, cyberbullying is defined as “willful and repeated harm” that causes humiliation, embarrassment, or bullying through any electronic modes of communication (Farbish, 2011, p. 112). One state that has taken a particularly aggressive stand against cyberbullying is New Jersey. New Jersey has specific statutes that address cyberbullying. As recently as 2014, New Jersey passed a Cyber-Harassment statute that makes cyberbullying a crime (N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1, 2014). A unique aspect of New Jersey’s Cyber-Harassment statute is that it imposes criminal sanctions for all forms of cyberbullying irrespective of the location in which the cyberullying takes place. New Jersey represents a minority of states that extend criminal liability for cyberbullying offenses that occur off school property (Farbish, 2011, p. 115). Since most cyberbulling incidents necessarily take place outside of school, the New Jersey legislative scheme reflects the reality of cyberbullying.
When a student is the victim of cyberbullying by another student, the student will usually look to sue the school district and school officials on the legal theory that these entities were aware of the cyberbullying and did not take reasonable measures to prevent it. Schools act as caretakers of students and are entrusted with an obligation to use reasonable measures to keep students safe and free from harm. Schools usually have much greater financial resources than the actual bully, and thus, the actual bully is usually not named in the suit. In addition, the actual bully is not a state-actor for purposes of the lawsuit and therefore there are many practical obstacles to seeking redress from the bully who perpetrated the harm.
New Jersey has taken an aggressive position against cyberbullying and schoolbullying and this is reflected in a recent decision by a New Jersey court. In a 2014 case, the court held that schools that are sued by bullied victims are permitted to seek contribution from the bully who originally carried out the harm (V.B. v. Flemington-Raritan Regional Bd. of Educ., 2014). A bullying victim brought a suit against the school pursuant to New Jersey anti-bullying statutes for failing to properly address the victim’s complaints of bullying and harassment incidents. The defendant school then sought contribution from the bullies, the students who perpetrated the bullying against the victim. The bully sought to dismiss the motion for contribution, but the court allowed the motion to proceed. The significance of this holding was that school bullies and their parents could be held potentially liable for their conduct.
Farbish, S. (2011). Sending the principal to the warden’s office: Holding school officials
criminally liable for failing to report cyberbullying. Cardozo Journal of Law &
N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1 (2014).
V.B. v. Flemington-Raritan Regional Bd. of Educ., HNT-L-95-13 (2014).