Cyberbullying: Schools say it’s still bullying

By JACOB PERRYMAN

“mailto:jperryman@timesobserver.com”>jperryman@timesobserver.com

Listen up hiding behind a computer screen doesn’t change anything, it’s still bullying.

The emergence of new technology has also given rise to new ways to harass others. Whether it be texting embarassing photos or slandering someone online, there’s a word for abusing communication technology at the expense of others; cyberbullying.

Awareness of the issue has been steadily gaining ground and now attorneys general from across the nation are addressing it.

On April 23, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced a new online safety campaign targeting cyberbullying. Kane and 18 of her fellow attorneys general are teaming with Facebook to provide teenagers and parents with resources on the issue at www.facebook.com/fbsafety as part of the Privacy in the Digital Age initiative.

According to the April 23 press release, “The initiative, which was formally unveiled at the National Association of Attorneys General’s Presidential Summit on ‘Privacy in the Digital Age.’ provides teenagers and parents with tips and resources to better manage with information they share – and with whom they share it – both on Facebook and the internet.”

Kane filmed a public service announcement with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg entitled “What You Can Do to Control Your Information”. The PSA addresses questions about privacy, bullying prevention and general internet safety. The address can be viewed at vimeo.com/user14100391/review/64205091/03aa64cf6a.

Meanwhile, to those who work with teenagers and adolescents, cyberbullying isn’t new terrain, and they treat it as what it is, bullying.

“We’ve been doing bullying programs in the district for a long time,” Acting Superintendent Amy Stewart with the Warren County School District said. “It started out as face-to-face, but it’s expanded as the world has expanded. It’s grown to include cellphones and the internet.”

According to Marcia Madigan, principal at Sugar Grove and Russell elementary schools, individual schools have different programs, but it’s something everyone is working to prevent.

“The big thing that they’re having success with right now is kids making their own posters,” Madigan said. “They’re focusing on the positive behaviors. We’re looking at their (students’) responsibility as bystanders. One person can make a difference.”

Madigan noted educators aren’t approaching the problem blind either, adding that she, as well as other school administrators, have received training through nationally recognized programs such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

The district has also reached out to the community on the issue with off-site sessions addressing the problem.

“It tends to be a moving target and it’s difficult for parents to keep up,” Stewart said, noting the evolving nature of digital communication. “But parents need to stay in tune.”

According to Stewart, as awareness has grown, mandates governing cyber safety have been put in place that schools must follow to receive technology funding.

Many of these requirements, she said, are integrated into the school’s Gaggle network. Stewart said students must complete a module including information on safe usage before they are allowed to access the system.

District guidelines for usage of the system prohibit offensive messages or pictures and using technology to harass, threaten, disrupt, defame or annoy others. Violation of the guidelines can result in being banned from the system.

As for discipline, the district doesn’t make a distinction between actions online and in-person. The district policy definition of bullying includes electronic acts and specifically cites “Bullying, as defined in this policy, includes cyberbullying.” No matter how it happens, bullying carries the same disciplinary actions.

“The test is usually, ‘Does it create a significant disruption at school?'” Stewart said. “We try to connect the dots between the general behavior and the digital program. There’s a lot of overlap from, kind of, what happened last night to here (school).”

Stewart said it is common for parents to contact the school about things that happen outside of school hours involving students. She also said it’s common for students to report bullying incidents to the school which happened outside of school.

According to Stewart, knowing that overlap exists has driven efforts to integrate with the people dealing with the problem when students aren’t at school.

“Often times we do work with organizations outside school and it’s not just cyberbullying,” Stewart said. “It’s anything that extends outside of school. It’s important to have a nexus. It’s important that everybody work together and be on the same team.”