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Cyberbully Parent Behaving Badly

Cyberbully students are causing endless angst for schools who feel obligated to interfere when students bully and are bullied–but aren’t sure where the limitations of their authority lie. Legal wrangling about cyberbullying goes on–and so does the debate about what a parent’s role should be when it’s his kid on one side or the other of the online equation. Last week’s New York Times article spotlighted one parent who sued on behalf of his daughter, who was suspended from her Beverly Hills high school for posting a video online in which other students called a fellow eighth grade girl “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.” The parent said he chastised his daughter. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.” But still, he sued, and the court revoked the girl’s suspension and awarded court costs.

Putting aside the legal situation, bloggers like Strollerderby’s Madeline Holler wondered if the lawsuit-happy dad did more than chastise his daughter. Did he, perhaps, take away her cell phone? Limit her time online? Do anything at all to suggest that such “not nice” behavior, even if legal and outside the boundaries of school authority, would not be tolerated? At Tablet, commenters on an article about cyberbullying wondered the same thing–and the dad himself showed up in the debate.

He never did answer the question–but he did reveal exactly where his offspring learned her charming online manners.

Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall was squaring off  with editor Liel Liebovitz in a debate on how parents and schools should respond to cyberbullying. Ingalls said that regardless of the law, parents should be teaching kids that any form of online meanness is wrong. In reference to the father who sued his daughter’s school for suspending her over an online video post that he saw as well within her constitutional rights, Ingall said “There was a teachable moment here, and he blew it like a vuvuzela.” She thought dad should have had his daughter “nuke the video, apologize to the girl, accept the school’s punishment, get your own punishment at home, and have a serious discussion about values and morals.”

That sounds good. I’m thinking a nice long vacation from her laptop, cell phone and video camera was in order, along with an apology (maybe filmed for YouTube posterity?) Instead, although the girl apparently offered to take the video down, her father insisted that it remain online “to assist in the public debate.” And then he sued.

I’m not taking a position on whether the video–or any online bullying–constitutes free speech, and neither did Ingall. I’d go even farther than she did, and argue that a bunch of vague laws attempting to regulate this particular issue will probably do more harm than good, although I’d support the idea of schools making their own policies on this, and having students sign them, agreeing to maintain a civil environment online as well as in the hallways. But Ingalls stuck to the narrower question, arguing that the parent in question, one Evan S. Cohen, had an obligation to take the opportunity to teach his daughter that what’s legal isn’t always moral, and, in the words of one commenter, “sometimes it’s better to be kind than right.”

Ingall asked. Commenters asked. “Mr. Cohen, did you in fact reprimand your daughter in any way for her behavior?”

And Mr. Cohen sailed into the fray. He defended his child’s actions, saying that posting a “stupid, juvenile video of some kids talking about other kids” was not cyberbullying. He hailed himself as a defender of constitutional rights. He argued that the school’s policies, and the law, did not permit it to punish a child for an incident that took place wholly outside of the school. As for the question at hand?

He didn’t answer it. And the commenters called him on it: “The issue under discussion in this column isn’t the legal question of whether the school had the right to punish [your] daughter. The issue is the moral question of how parents should discharge their responsibilities to raise their kids as decent human beings in an environment where giving vent to one’s most vicious inclinations is so easy to do.”

I did answer it, he said. You just didn’t like my answer. It wasn’t cyberbullying. It was a “minor incident.”

I take that to mean his lack of a response constituted a response: he didn’t consider the incident worthy of a reprimand. Commenters weren’t so sure. They kept asking. They debated the legal issue. They got angry. Cohen followed suit. And kindness went right out the window.

“Get over it, Elise, you hack. … If it were up to you, one “mean” text message would land a student in irons, rights revoked, sitting at home, suspended, or, as you apparently want, in jail. You sicken me. … What’s your law school, idiot? Right. You didn’t go to one. You’re also a liar.”

And I do believe we have an answer to the question of why Cohen didn’t reprimand his daughter for a mere video of other eighth graders insulting one of her fellow students.  On the contrary, he probably called her up onto the carpet for failing to get out in front of the camera. When parents think there’s no reason for civility in online discourse, we have to assume our kids are going to follow.

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