Thursday, December 20, 2012

Making Sense of Statistics

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just released its annual report of state child protective services (CPS) statistics, showing that the number of reported child abuse victims has dropped for the fifth year in a row – there were an estimated 681,000 reported victims of child abuse in 2011, down from 695,000 in 2010 and 723,000 in 2007. Child deaths caused by abuse were also the lowest in five years. However, what these statistics mean exactly is not clear.

One child welfare expert, Richard Gelles with the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the decline in reported child abuse is consistent with the decline in violent crime, homicide, and violence against women. Gelles also believes that the decline is due, in part, to more adults delaying marriage and child-bearing, reducing high-risk situations where young people raise children they cannot afford.

Another expert, David Finkelhor with the University of New Hampshire, expressed frustration over the lack of analysis of the trends, saying "it does appear remarkable that overall child maltreatment has declined given that unemployment has been so high, the housing and mortgage crisis has continued, and state and local budgets for family and child services have been cut."

And other child-protection advocates contend that the drop in reports simply reflects a tendency by CPS to investigate fewer cases because of tight budgets.

George Sheldon, HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families summed it up this way:  "We have made excellent progress over the past five years. But what this report tells me is that we still have 681,000 children out there who need our help.”

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wild Wild Web

A convicted child sex offender in Ireland, identified only as "XY," was released from jail after serving half of his sentence for 15 sexual offenses committed in the 1980s. Upon his release, he discovered his photograph and threatening comments on the Facebook page "Keeping our kids safe from predators."  One of the posts said, "Put him down like an animal."

XY sued Facebook for harassment, breach of privacy, and breach of human rights, claiming that, "By publishing this material about me, the defendants are providing a vehicle for others who may have criminal intent to gain information about where I live and to stir up hatred against me."

Facebook's attorney argued that Facebook was "walking a fine line" between the rights of its users and the privacy of others. He asked, "Will it give the plaintiff any benefit to shut down this site and deprive 4,000 users of their freedom of expression, the vast amount of which is legitimate debate on sex offenders?"

While the U.K.'s High Court acknowledged that the man's name, physical appearance, criminal record, and whereabouts were already public information, the ruling "simply requires certain modest steps to be taken by the operator of a social networking site to ensure that, pending the substantive trial of this action, the plaintiff is not exposed to further conduct which I consider, to a high level of arguability, to be unlawful."

Within hours after Facebook complied with the order, a page with a similar name appeared. 

In the U.S., state laws banning sex offenders from using social networking sites are getting mixed reviews. The federal court in Nebraska struck down a state law that made it a crime for certain registered sex offenders to use social networking sites or chat rooms, and allowed monitoring of their computers and Internet usage.

But an Indiana federal court upheld a state ban on convicted sex offenders accessing social networking sites used by children because the law was narrowly drawn so that certain sex offenders are "only precluded from using web sites where online predators have easy access to a nearly limitless pool of potential victims."

One thing is clear: we have not heard the last from the courts on balancing rights of privacy against free speech, especially when dealing with the emotionally-charged issue of child abuse.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Talented Youth: Bullied and Awarded

This post has good news and bad news for gifted and talented youth.

First, the bad news. A study by the U.K.-based Anti-Bullying Alliance found that:
  • More than 90 percent of British children have been bullied or saw others being bullied because they are gifted and talented.
  • More than a quarter of the 11-16-year-olds surveyed said they quit an activity for fear of being bullied, and half downplayed a talent for the same reason.
  • One in ten children hid their science ability, and one in five girls (and one in ten boys) deliberately underachieved in math to avoid being bullied.
This U.K. study's findings are consistent with a previous U.S. study that found high-achieving students' (especially African-Americans and Latinos) grades dropped as a result of bullying. And a University of Virginia study also found a link between bullying and high school dropout rates.

Now, the good news for talented youth. First Lady Michelle Obama presented Oakland's Youth Radio with the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the highest honor for after-school arts and humanities programs. Among the awarded programs were a New York debate league, an African culture group, and a mariachi apprentice program honoring the Mexican-American experience in Los Angeles.

At the White House awards ceremony, the First Lady said, "In spite of all the challenges and obstacles our young people face, in spite of all their fears and doubts, you teach them art anyway. You teach them that no matter what life throws their way, if they draw back on their own talent, creativity and courage; if they're persistent and tenacious and bold, then they can truly make something extraordinary out of their lives."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Principal Sentenced to Teach

In the second "failure to report" case in two decades brought by Santa Clara County prosecutors, O.B. Whaley Elementary School's former principal, Lyn Vijayendran, was convicted of failing to report suspected sexual abuse of a student by one of her teachers.

The judge told Vijayendran "you made a very bad judgment that day," then sentenced her to pay $602 in criminal fines, two years of probation, and 100 hours of community service, which will include helping teach other school officials about their legal duty to report suspected child abuse.

The jury forewoman said Vijayendran "dropped the ball." Another juror said the principal "stuck her head in the sand rather than pull the alarm. I think she didn't want this ugly thing to be true."

The eight-year-old girl's mother told Vijayendran that second-grade teacher Craig Chandler had acted "strangely" with her daughter, and showed the principal a suspicious stain on her daughter's jacket.  Vijayendran then interviewed the girl who provided vivid details of her strange encounter with Mr. Chandler.

Vijayendran testified that Mr. Chandler "appeared forthright" when he told her that blindfolding a second-grade girl, telling her to lie on the floor, and putting a salty liquid in her mouth while they were alone in the classroom was part of a lesson plan about Helen Keller.

Vijayendran's decision to conduct her own investigation, instead of reporting the incident to authorities as the law requires of mandatory reporters, resulted in her criminal conviction and allowed Mr. Chandler to molest another student a few months later.

Under California law, school districts are required to train their educators how to recognize and report suspected child abuse. While the law provides an exception — a school district may simply write a letter explaining why training was not provided — jurors said the Evergreen School District shared some responsibility in this case.

"I think there were comments made that over a 20-year period, that people from the teachers all the way up to the principals all the way up to HR that they've received no training on mandatory reporting," said juror Kathy Ericksen. Juror Susan LaGassa agreed, "Educators need to know that this is unacceptable."

"The bigger picture," said prosecutor Alison Filo, "is we want mandated reporters to understand to always err on the side of caution and report, never investigate."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Suspicious Minds

What do the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and Penn State University have in common with the Horace Mann School in New York City and Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles?  They all had trusted members of their organizations who were involved in child sex abuse scandals.

Now, "The BBC's reputation is on the line," says Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust.  Police are describing disc jockey and BBC television host Jimmy Savile (who died last year at age 84) as "one of the worst sex offenders in recent history." Given recent history, that's a pretty big claim.

This latest BBC scandal began when a television documentary aired in October in which several women claimed that they were sexually abused by Savile when they were in their early teens. Hundreds of potential victims have since come forward with similar claims.

In connection with the Savile investigation, police arrested musician and convicted sex offender Gary Glitter (known for his shiny jumpsuits and whose real name is Paul Gadd).  Glitter served a U.K. prison term in 1999 for possession of child pornography. After moving to Vietnam, he was convicted of child abuse in 2006 and deported back to Britain in 2008. Glitter is best known for the crowd-pleasing hit "Rock & Roll (Part 2)" which, in 2006, the National Football League advised teams not to use at games.

Questions are now being raised about whether the BBC was involved in a cover-up, and whether Savile was at the center of a broader pedophile ring. All of this leaves some of us wondering, who can you trust?

"As a society, we've just got to somehow get over this notion that some men, some women, some institutions, are 100 percent pristine and trustworthy," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We've got to look at actual behavior, not reputation."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Doctor Near-Death

Pediatrician Melvin Morse and his wife were arrested this week at their home in Georgetown, Delaware, on charges of child endangerment.

According to police, Dr. Morse used waterboarding – a simulated drowning technique typically considered to be torture – to punish his 11-year-old daughter four times over the last two years while the girl's mother looked on and did not try to stop it.

Dr. Morse's excessive discipline came to light when the girl ran to a neighbor's house after her father dragged her by the ankles over a gravel driveway because she wouldn't get out of the car for reasons unknown.  When a concerned citizen called police, the girl was questioned by authorities and told them that her father had also used waterboarding to discipline her.

Dr. Morse heads the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and has appeared on "Oprah," "Good Morning America," and "Larry King Live." He has written about his research on near-death experiences, particularly those involving children.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Kentucky CPS Files Are Public Records

A Kentucky judge has ruled that the files of that state’s child-protection system are public records, allowing the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper access to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ (CHFS) case files of children who were killed or critically injured as a result of abuse and neglect in 2009 and 2010.

One of those files revealed the tragic story of two-year-old Kayla Mosley who found her parents' stash of pills. She ate enough pills for an acute drug overdose and had been dead several hours when she was found by her "drug-addled" parents.

Another case file describes how four-year-old Nathaniel Knox arrived at the hospital with a skull fracture, bruises all over his body, and an adult-sized bite mark on his arm. Nathaniel's mother told doctors that he had fallen off a low deck and hit his head. But his mother's story did not square with Nathaniel's injuries. One doctor said that it would have taken "tremendous force" to crack the toddler's skull, and lesions on his retinas indicated previous beatings. Nathaniel died on August 1, 2009.

The Herald-Leader's analysis of the CHFS files released so far found that: 
  • children age 4 and younger accounted for 37 of the 41 deaths 
  • toddler boys are killed more often than girls
  • men are more likely to be the perpetrators
  • at least one adult was a high-school dropout in homes where a child died from abuse or neglect

Monday, July 16, 2012

ABCs of Elder Abuse

It started with Rodney Chapman mowing Gwendolyn Swank's lawn and doing handyman jobs around her mobile home. They lived across the street from each other in a mobile home park in Pemaquid, Maine, which has the oldest median age in the country. Chapman became Gwendolyn Swank's best friend and worst enemy.

Gwendolyn worked her whole life as a bookkeeper and accumulated over $300,000 in assets. Six years after Chapman befriended her, the balance in Swank's retirement nest egg was 37 cents. On June 12th, 85-year-old Gwendolyn was awarded $1.3 million against Chapman who is serving a five-year sentence for theft and has no ability to pay the judgment.

According to Detective Robert McFetridge who specializes in elder abuse cases, this case followed the ABCs of how to steal money from an elderly person, "A, befriend them. B, slowly start making them dependent on you. C, isolate them from other people. D, take everything they own."

After befriending her, Chapman convinced Gwendolyn to invest in an auto repair and recovery business which she's not sure ever existed. Then Chapman learned that Gwendolyn was scared about illegal drug activity in the area so he fed her fear by pounding on her trailer at night, telling her to stay inside, took her phone away, and restricted visitors and the use of her car, telling her it was for her own safety.

McFetridge investigated the case and said, "In my opinion, it's just as serious as if he had beaten her within an inch of her life … By the time we intervened, she was down to living on peanut butter and rice cakes. She was really a prisoner in her own home."

Tips for protecting yourself against elder abuse:
  • Stay socially active and engaged
  • Do not let anyone rush or pressure you into signing a document, purchasing something, or giving away your money or property
  • Build relationships with the professionals who advise you or handle your money
  • Avoid joint accounts
  • Powers of attorney are useful and important tools, but can be misused
Click here for a directory of state helplines and elder abuse prevention resources.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Grandmas Do Cry

Four middle-school students received a one-year suspension from school for bullying a 68-year-old bus monitor to tears. The ugly episode was caught on cell phone video (warning: language), recording the boys' relentless taunts about Grandma Karen Klein's girth.

One student's words were especially cruel saying, "You don't have a family because they all killed themselves because they don't want to be near you."  Klein's oldest son committed suicide ten years ago.

Once the video went viral, the public outcry fueled a fund raiser to raise $5,000 for Klein to take a nice vacation – the result was an astonishing $667,000.

When asked about the bullies' punishment, Klein said the best part was "that they have to do community service for senior citizens." And, because the video went viral, "it's putting people into action, making them talk to their children, making them teach them what they should not do."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bad Apples

A third grader was forced to undress and school officials scrubbed his body in the shower because he "smelled badly, was dirty and … had bad hygiene." His parents have sued the Peaster School District outside Fort Worth, Texas, alleging that their son now is in therapy, distraught about being dirty or smelling badly, and showers compulsively.

Meanwhile, in a kindergarten class near San Antonio, Texas, the teacher lined up the classmates and instructed them to hit six-year-old Aiden to "teach him why bullying is bad." Some students didn't want to hit Aiden but were afraid to disobey their teacher. Then one student hit Aiden hard in his upper back and the teacher intervened. Apparently, Aiden's teacher was following the advice of a more experienced colleague and both are now on paid administrative leave. Aiden's mother has filed a police report against the teachers for bullying her son.

No one from either school contacted the children's parents first to try and resolve these issues before crossing the line from teachable moment to criminal and civil liability.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Flirting With Disaster

Skout is an app designed for flirting between adults. Users exchange photos, messages, and virtual gifts. It has GPS that allows people to connect with strangers that are nearby, and its popularity is growing with millions of new users each month.

Its growth also attracted $22 million in financing from one of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital firms which cited Skout's safety and security protocols as a major reason for the investment. For example, the GPS location feature is an opt-in and approximates a user's location within half a mile. Skout also monitors the app for illicit and violent behavior, nude photos, inappropriate sexual messages, profanity, spamming, and copyright infringement.

After learning that children were using its adult app, the company started a separate service with parental controls for 13- to 17-year-olds. 

However, the minors’ app and "creepinator" technology were not enough to keep out child predators who have been accused of sex crimes against children they met using Skout:  a 15-year-old Ohio girl, a 12-year-old California girl, and a 13-year-old Wisconsin boy were sexually assaulted by adult men posing as teenagers on Skout.

Skout's founder calls these cases "a five-alarm fire" and says, "The entire company is re-evaluating everything it's doing."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Costly Reporting Delay

A kindergarten teacher in Wichita, Kansas, was forced to resign and her teaching license was revoked because she delayed reporting suspected child abuse to authorities.  Donna Ford had taught for 17 years when she failed to comply with her school's policy requiring her to report suspected abuse "on the same day the suspicion arises."

Apparently, Ford informed the school principal, social worker, and counselor about her suspicion that a 6-year-old girl in her class was being abused by a teenager who was living in the child's home.  However, when she tried to report her suspicions to state authorities, her computer malfunctioned and it was over a week later when she finally submitted her report  — after the girl's mother advised Ford and other school officials that the teenager no longer lived with them.

Ford's supporters say she was unfairly punished, while a national support group for abuse victims called it "a powerful statement that protecting children is not something to be taken lightly."

In our previous post, we wrote about the Connecticut Supreme Court case that denied a school principal the right to sue after being fired for reporting child abuse.  When confronted with conflicting laws, policies, and people's reactions to child abuse, these cases remind us to keep focused on the children:  as a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services said, "When you're talking about the well-being – and survival, in some cases – of a child, it's better to err on the side of caution."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Can Report But Can't Sue

All 50 states, the US territories, and the District of Columbia provide legal immunity from lawsuits or criminal prosecution for reporting suspected child abuse. In addition, many states also protect employees who report abuse from workplace retaliation.

While some states make it relatively easy for employees to sue to enforce their rights, others may require a state agency to take legal action.

One Connecticut school principal learned this lesson the hard way. Under Connecticut law, employers are forbidden from retaliating against an employee who reports suspected child abuse. If they do, the law authorizes the state Attorney General to sue the employer.

So, when principal Carmen Perez-Dickson was demoted and later suspended after reporting two incidents of suspected child abuse, she sued the school board for retaliation. After a trial, the jury awarded her over $2 million.

Unfortunately for the former principal, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned her verdict. Although Perez-Dickson was correct in principle that she could not legally be fired for reporting abuse, she erred by assuming that she could sue to vindicate her rights. Instead, the Court ruled that only the Connecticut Attorney General was legally authorized to prosecute employers who retaliate against employees for reporting child abuse. [Perez-Dickson v. Bridgeport (CT 2012)]

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Senior Scams

The IRS has issued an alert warning seniors that they are the target of yet another scam.

With April 15th looming, the con artist tells seniors they are entitled to a tax refund or stimulus payment but - as many scams go - in order to get the money they need to pay an upfront fee. Of course, the tax refund or stimulus payment never arrives and the upfront payment is never seen again.

This is a new spin on a list of scams that still work so they bear repeating. One scam that has stood the test of time involves the trickster who claims to be a "grandson" (or "granddaughter"), and who calls grandpa (or grandma) frantically explaining that they've been in an accident, arrested, and need money sent quickly to get out of jail. The phone is handed to the kid's "lawyer," who directs the grandparent to send thousands of dollars via Western Union.

This scam only works when worried elders are so rattled that they suppress their legitimate doubts. Don't fall for it!

Here is a list of the Federal Trade Commission's 10 tips to avoid fraud:
  • Remember, once you wire money, you can't get it back.
  • Don't send money to anyone you don't know.
  • Don't respond to any message - phone call, text or otherwise - that asks for personal of financial information.
  • Don't play foreign lotteries.
  • Don't deposit checks from someone you don't know and then wire money back, no matter how convincing the story.
  • Read monthly bills and statements carefully.
  • After a crisis or disaster, give to established charities.
  • Talk to your doctor before buying health products or signing up for treatments.
  • Know where an offer comes from and who you're dealing with.

Monday, March 26, 2012

FTC Video: Sharing Information

In today's world of smart phones, smart grids, and smart cars, companies are collecting, storing, and sharing more and more information about you. In fact, as illustrated by a new video from the Federal Trade Commission, you might not realize just how often companies do so.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another "Gray" Area

In our last post, we discussed what is a "reasonable" suspicion for reporting child abuse. This is the same standard used for reporting elder abuse, which can be an equally difficult judgment call.

A case in point involves Mr. Dowdall, a 70-year-old man who suffers from an advanced form of dementia and was not supposed to be driving. However, when he was left at home alone one day, he drove his older model car down to the dealership and traded it in on a brand new convertible. Described as a "frugal man" before the onset of dementia, Dowdall signed a purchase contract for $62,130, including $10,000 of dealer add-ons, without negotiating.

The dealership helped him finance the purchase, obligating Mr. Dowdall to make $923 monthly payments that his wife said he could not afford. So, she hired an attorney to determine if her husband was the victim of elder abuse.

The salesman "acknowledged that something had seemed amiss with the man," but said there was nothing he could do once the sale was completed.

Later, the dealership agreed to take back the car after being "inundated with angry phone calls and emails" in response to media reports of this incident.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What's a "Reasonable Suspicion"?

Deciding to call the authorities because you suspect a child risks being harmed requires a judgment call about what's a "reasonable suspicion."

For example, our first story involves a four-year-old girl who drew a picture at school of a man with a gun. Does this raise a reasonable suspicion of child mistreatment?  Her teacher in Ontario, Canada, thought so and called the child protective agency.  When her father arrived to pick up his children, he was handcuffed, arrested, and strip searched. However, after searching the family's home, the only gun found was a toy.

Or, do you have reasonable suspicion of a child predator if you see an older white man wearing a camouflage jacket and blue jeans standing at a school bus stop? After one mom in a Philadelphia suburb approached the man offering help, he walked away without saying anything — so she called the police. The police notified the school, children were kept in their classrooms during recess, and an email alert was sent to parents asking them to call 911 immediately if they saw this "suspicious" person. It turns out that the man was a new resident of the community and, instead of being welcomed with a plate of cookies, he was questioned by police about why he was standing at a school bus stop.

The third story involves a text message about a Georgia school that was sent by an unknown sender: "gunman be at west hall today." Does this raise a reasonable suspicion of a planned school shooting? After law enforcement learned of the text message, they told school officials to go into lockdown. It turned out that the sender was all thumbs: the auto correct feature on the sender's cellphone had changed "gunna" to "gunman," and the corrected message was accidentally sent to the wrong number. The fact that this happened three days after a school shooting in Ohio helps explain the concern.

Finally, what about a four-year-old girl who was punished by rubbing her mouth until her lips swelled? Even though the abuse was reported to the police in the summer of 2011, the first prosecutor to review the girl's case decided that her mother's boyfriend hadn't violated North Dakota's corporal punishment law. The police continued their investigation, finding that the girl also had bruises on her face and neck which she said happened when she slipped in the shower. Also, the mother's boyfriend first told investigators that the girl injured herself while riding her bike, and then later admitted that he had rubbed her face because she wet the bed. The second prosecutor who reviewed the case charged the boyfriend with felony child abuse, punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

So, when deciding if you've got "reasonable suspicion," ask yourself:
"Would someone with average judgment, who saw or heard what I did, also be suspicious?"
If so, it's reasonable. And while you may not always be right, when you are, a child may be saved from harm.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guilty Verdict for Grandpa

In our previous post, we told you about Christopher Carlson who was on trial for child abuse charges because he kicked and yelled at his three young grandsons to keep them going while hiking the Grand Canyon in triple-digit August heat.

After deliberating for two days, the jury found Carlson guilty on the three of the six charges.

Carlson was 15 years old when the boys' mother was born, and is now 45 years old facing life in prison.

His sentencing is scheduled for June 1.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Blisters and Broccoli

Christopher Alan Carlson's attorney described him as a "health nut," who wanted to get his three grandsons (ages 8, 9 and 12 years old) in shape by hiking the Grand Canyon.

According to the prosecutor, the Grand Canyon was "a weapon in child abuse" because "these hikes became a life or death situation for these children...." Carlson is on trial for felony child abuse and faces life in prison.

One of the hikes took place on August 28th when the temperature in the Grand Canyon reached as high as 108 degrees. Rangers gave the boys food and water after one showed symptoms of heat stroke, and the other two showed signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

During a 19-mile hike, Carlson's oldest grandson testified that his vision and hearing became altered and he fell down several times because of cramping. "I started crying and walking faster and he kicked me in the butt and said, 'Run,'" the boy said, explaining that Carlson was in a hurry to get to the top so they could watch the sunset.

The middle child's blisters were so bad that they turned into ulcers and he couldn't wear shoes for weeks. He also told jurors that Carlson made him eat broccoli that he had tried to flush down the toilet.

On the other hand, the youngest grandson testified about the "awesome" trips Carlson took them on to Hoover Dam, the Stratosphere Hotel and Criss Angel magic show in Las Vegas, Disneyland, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. He also said Carlson allowed the boys to drink water and snack on celery, carrots, tofu, and low-carb hummus during the hikes.

"I suppose to an 8, 9 or 10-year-old that might seem like child abuse if you like cheeseburgers, French fries and pizza," Carlson's attorney told the jury, but Carlson "wanted to get them from behind the TV, the games and fast food."

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Cost of Abuse

There's pressure to make the prevention of child maltreatment a priority in the US – but it's not because of the government report about the estimated 695,000 victims of child mistreatment in 2010.

Instead, it's due to the economic burden of dealing with the long-term consequences of child abuse that makes a strong case for devoting public resources to the prevention of child maltreatment.

A study published in Child Abuse & Neglect (2012) calculated the public financial cost of child abuse at about $124 billion each year. When broken down, the "productivity loss" plus the expense to the country's criminal justice, education, health care, and welfare systems adds up to a lifetime cost of $210,012 per victim.

The annual price tag of child abuse is comparable to health problems like stroke and type 2 diabetes, leading researchers to conclude that "Child Maltreatment is a serious and prevalent public health problem in the United States, responsible for substantial morbidity and mortality."

So, if the human cost wasn't enough to make child abuse prevention and treatment services a priority, now we also know that we cannot afford the financial costs of failing to fund these critical services.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Assault In Words

On February 2, 2012, the Judiciary Committee will consider Senate Bill 1925, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, to continue (at a reduced level of funding) safety and support services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. These services include education for child protective service workers, legal assistance, supervised visitation programs, housing protections, and court responses to these violent crimes.

A critical addition to this bill addresses campus sexual violence, including provisions for prevention education for all incoming students and training for campus law enforcement. Between 20 and 25 percent of women are sexually assaulted on college campuses.

Voted one of 30 "Must-See Tumblr Blogs" by Time Magazine, "project unbreakable" was created by Grace Brown who uses photography to help victims of sexual abuse heal. Ms. Brown posts her photographs of victims holding posters on which they write quotes from their attackers. Time calls it "a shocking and sad look at sexual assault and how it affects their victims."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Free Speech or Online Harassment?

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to give schools guidance on where to draw the line between a student's free speech rights and online harassment. Litigants asked the Court to review decisions in three cases involving Internet speech that came to different results. Two cases involved students using the Internet to ridicule their principals, and the third case involved student-on-student online harassment.

By denying review, the Court let stand two lower court decisions that First Amendment free speech rights trump the schools' right to punish students for using social media to make derogatory statements about their principals.  And the third decision will stand upholding a school's right to suspend a student for online harassment of another student.

Free speech rights were protected where one student portrayed her middle school principal as a "hairy sex addict" and a pedophile because the claims were too outrageous to be taken seriously. In the second case, a student posted comments about a high school principal, calling him a "big steroid freak" and a drunk, but, since the student's online comments did not cause substantial disruption at school, they could not be punished by school administrators.

However, in the third case, free speech rights did not prevent a student's punishment for creating a website where she posted hateful comments about another student.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that her "particularly mean-spirited and hateful" conduct violated school anti-bullying policies that were necessary to preserve a safe educational environment at school.

The Internet has provided an especially virulent means to bully and harass, and the Court missed an opportunity to provide school administrators with valuable insight on how to navigate these troubled waters.