Students or parents involved in cyber bullying could be jailed for up to 10 years under a Baillieu government push to stamp it out.
The Victorian government will use Brodie’s law – which amended the Crimes Act to allow 10-year prison terms for workplace bullying – to protect principals, teachers, and students who are subjected to severe cases of online abuse.
Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon and Teaching Profession Minister Peter Hall have also asked their departments to examine other legal avenues for victims, admitting the problem is getting worse.
”We have seen far too many examples of teachers, principals and students being bullied to the point where their lives and reputations have been ruined,” Mr Hall said.
The move comes amid continuing pressure from principals, who had accused the government of not doing enough to tackle cyber bullying in schools – not just for students, but for the growing problem of parents and students using the web to abuse principals and teachers.
In one primary school, a parent used Facebook to spread accusations that a principal had ”manhandled” their son. The department is also aware of several anonymous postings on a website called ”Rate My Teachers” – where some students have branded teachers as paedophiles or accused them of misconduct – and a number of gossip sites have been set up targeting school staff.
But the problem can also prove fatal for children: the government says that as recently as a few weeks ago, a young girl involved in a cyber-bullying incident killed herself by stepping in front of a moving train.
Mr Dixon said the government had gone to great lengths to fund programs and educate schools about cyberbullying, ”however, under certain circumstances it makes sense to look to appropriate legal measures to protect people’s rights and their lives”.
Under pressure from schools, the education ministers last week asked Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark to clarify Brodie’s law to ensure it provided protection for principals, teachers and students.
The law – named after the 19-year-old waitress who committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied in the cafe where she worked – provides a maximum 10-year jail term for people engaged in the most serious and systematic cases of bullying and cyber bullying.
The Attorney-General said Brodie’s law did apply in schools, meaning parents, teachers, or even young children could be punished, although no one under the age of 10 could be brought before a criminal court.
Principals welcomed the news, while Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said it would cause people to ”think twice” before engaging in cyber attacks.
But teachers have raised concerns about the Coalition’s latest ”tough on crime” initiative.
”I’m struggling to think of very many circumstances where cyber bullying would warrant a 10-year penalty,” said Australian Education Union branch president Mary Bluett. ”We should throw our efforts into education and support.”
Australian Principals Federation president Chris Cotching said that as the employer of principals and teachers, the education department had a ”duty of care” to intervene by cautioning parents or imposing legal sanctions.
Frank Sal, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals said he had seen too many incidents of vile web postings destroying careers.
This story also relates to having a good digital footprint – being responsible for what you publish and realising that your online reputation can impact on your ‘real life’ reputation.