Off-campus threats

As the prevalence of social media continues to grow in schools, age-old problems of name-calling, bullying and harassment have flourished on a whole new level.

"Once Facebook came in and became the social network of all the teens, I guess the kids think they can go on there and say anything they want to, even if they are not saying it out loud to other people," said Maiden High School Principal Dwayne Finger. "They think they can say anything they want to, and it often hurts people's feelings or causes conflict."

Even though those conflicts often start while students are outside school halls, the resulting fallout of arguments that start online on Facebook or Twitter can spill into the classroom.

"Usually the type thing you think of is never anything severe. Somebody talking about somebody on there, and they get mad and bring it to the school." Finger said. "We have had numerous occasions when arguments occurred in school because students are not getting along ... it almost always goes back to 'last night on Facebook.'"

Problems aren't only reserved for high school students, either.

"We had a few incidents last year where we had texting and Facebook messaging that went on, and we did have to take a hard stance," said Shuford Elementary Principal Shane Whitener, who last year was assistant principal at Newton-Conover Middle School. "We are talking about kids that never get in trouble for anything during the school day, but they lose control on the Internet."

Going forward, when school administrators like Finger and Whitener "take a hard stance" against this type of conduct, they will have state law to support them.

Catawba County school leaders hope that with implementation of new state-mandated discipline procedures, some of the problems stemming from confrontations starting off school property grounds can be more effectively addressed when they impact the school day. Whether an issue arises online overnight or at the bus stop, new conduct and discipline codes approved during the summer give school administrators a little more reach when it comes to levying punishment.

During an August board of education meeting, Catawba County Schools adopted a new code of student conduct that includes administrators' options for "effective discipline and control." Catawba County Schools Board Attorney Crystal Davis said the policy modifications come after a two-year project to rewrite state statutes governing student discipline. The effort consolidated some parts of North Carolina general statutes governing education and found compromise on some issues, she said.

"The statutes were in a hodge-podge and in different places," Davis told CCS members in August. "Now they are all in one place."

While many of the changes related to school administrators' ability to suspend students — and the length of time a student could be suspended — one change gives school officials an opportunity to address issues that start outside the schools.

"Case law has developed in the state so that we can discipline students for acts that occur off school property if that act causes disruption on school property," Davis said. "For instance, on Facebook if a child feels threatened or bullied and that continues at school, (school administrators' discipline capabilities) have never been codified in state law."

During this year's regular General Assembly legislative session, lawmakers changed that.

"What is happening is that the cyber communications are really taking the place of writing on the bathroom wall. We get more and more students that are singled out and sometimes even harassed on Facebook or some other cyber-network," said CCS Superintendent Glenn Barger. "It is a growing issue, and it is one we want to stay in front of to protect our students. That is the intent of the whole policy."

Newton-Conover City Schools officials are also considering changes to the school system's code of conduct and discipline guidelines to implement the changes that came at the state level. All total, 30 to 40 different modifications are being considered, said N-CCS Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond, including one that gives school officials the ability to deliver consequences for problems that start away from school.

"It does say that any time or any place, if the behavior has a direct or immediate affect on the school day, we can deal with it," Redmond said. "In the past, we have had situations at the bus stop where kids fight, and we have dealt with it as if they were on school grounds.

"We have not had to deal a lot with cyber-bullying off-campus," he continued, adding that if and when it does occur, school leaders will address it. "We will deal with it because it impacts the school day. If it impacts the school day, it becomes our issue."

At the middle school, Whitener said parents often approached school leaders for help in addressing problems that began with name-calling or harassment on the Internet.

"This (policy) makes it easier for us" to address the actions, he said, and principals at the high school level agreed.

"As with a lot of things, the students need to see how their actions will negatively impact them. As we have the opportunity to address some of these things, and students talk about it," Newton-Conover High School Principal Kevin Campbell said, and students will realize imminent punishment for off-camapus conduct that impacts the school day is "the way it is."

Finger agreed.

"Now we have the ground to discipline a kid," he said. "If they instigate something now, we have a little bit of backbone to it — we have a little bit of authority."

While cyberspace seems to be the newest frontier in bullying and harassment, these new bounds for school leaders' discipline enforcement aren't reserved just for conflicts on the Internet. Instead the policy change stipulates that if a student's behavior off school property "before, during, or after school hours" has "a direct and immediate impact on the orderly and efficient operation of the school or the safety of individuals in the school environment," school officials can take disciplinary action.

Overall, the goal is to take distractions away from the classrooms and focus school time on the task at hand — learning.

"This gives us legal permission to deal with the problem. It sends a message to students that they need to be careful how they act," Redmond said. "Our focus needs to be on teaching and learning and not on the social interactions they sometimes seem to focus on."