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Senator Hannon Talks to Mattlin Students About Cyber-Bullying

On Friday, June 11, Senator Kemp Hannon led a roundtable discussion regarding the effects and tactics of cyber-bullying at H.B. Mattlin Middle School with a student-only panel. Hannon has introduced legislation (S7158) which prohibits bullying and cyber-bullying on school property, establishes a statewide central registry for bullying, cyber-bullying and hazing complaints, and increases the penalties for acts related to hazing.

The roundtable was the result of a letter-writing campaign undertaken by students across Nassau County. “Your letters convinced me we needed to set a standard in this state,” Hannon said. He credited the students with initiating positive change. When seventh-grader Matt Dinhofer asked “If schools and other places didn’t bring up cyber-bullying, would New York be thinking about enforcing a law?” Hannon answered “Probably not, Matt. That’s why we need the help of you and your peers to shed light on issues such as this one.” 

Hannon was consistent in his stance that the children themselves should be a part of the lawmaking process. “I’ve heard from the experts, but the kids are the ones experiencing cyber-bullying and witnessing it every day. They are the ones we need to hear from,” he said before the roundtable. True to his word, Hannon asked almost as many questions of the student panel as they asked the senator, if not more, leading to a candid, spirited discussion. When a student named Elise asked Hannon what the difference was between traditional bullying and the new cyber-bullying, he was straightforward and honest in his response. “I don’t know…I wish I knew,” he said.

He asked several children about how many texts they received per day, the nature of those texts, and their preferred methods for getting information in general. The answers were consistent with Hannon’s stated view that a lot of what goes on in children’s digital communications is still a mystery to adults; when asked if his parents ever monitored his texts, a student named Matt appeared to speak for the majority when he answered “…sometimes.”

Some students even had criticism of Hannon’s pending legislation; a student named Rebecca asked how the bill, which prohibits cyber-bullying specifically on school property, could protect kids when most cyber-bullying takes place off of school property. “It’s not totally possible,” said Hannon, going on to explain how the law is meant to set a standard for how people should behave as opposed to policing people’s behavior directly. Later on, he explained the difficulties inherent in protecting children from bullying without disregarding the importance of the first amendment right to free speech.

One timely issue that came up repeatedly was the question of how to protect one’s privacy on Facebook and other social networking sites. Hannon explained to the students the importance of setting clear boundaries in online interactions: “I assume everything I do on the Internet is public,” he said.

When asked if protecting kids from cyber-bullying could run the risk of attempting to protect kids from life, Hannon acknowledged that it was a possibility, but pointed out that there was a distinction to be made between minor conflicts that happen to take place online and the kind of persistent, malicious cyber-bullying from which he seeks to protect students. He articulated where he drew the line between typical, if sometimes unpleasant, online interactions and genuine cyber-bullying: situations where multiple individuals focus on bullying one individual, or when the bullying starts to cross over into the students’ offline interactions. Confronted with recent incidences of cyber-bullying that have escalated to the point of physical violence, Hannon was not concerned about the risk of overprotecting children with his proposed legislation. “I don’t think anyone in America is insulated from life,” said Hannon.

Hannon also said that he believed that the question of how to deal with traditional bullying is still not settled, and he intends to work on protecting children from traditional bullying as well as cyber-bullying. He clarified, however, that he sees the two issues as being different, since the profusion of mobile technology has led to major changes in children’s lives. Earlier in the discussion, he commented to the students on the panel that their daily lives are very different than those of even his own daughters at their age, which was only ten years ago.

Hannon was clearly impressed by the depth of the questions presented by the students. “I was looking forward to this for weeks, and my expectations were surpassed,” he commented. Before the end of the panel, a student named Joshua presented Hannon with an anti-bullying petition that the students had put together with 269 signatures, which they collected, demanding a law in New York against cyber-bullying. Senator Hannon added his signature to the petition, adding that he planned to make the petition available on his website. On a lighter note, the senator was also presented with a Mattlin T-shirt, which led to smiles all around.

To learn more about the pending cyber-bullying legislation, or to sign the petition created by students from the Plainview-Old Bethpage community, visit the Senator’s website at www.KempHannon.com.