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Schools deal with new terror tactic: cyber bullying

Langley Middle School eighth-grader Maddie Jerome carefully reviews the worksheet used by  secondary students taking an immersive course on bullying last month. The two-day event focused on getting kids to admit a problem exists, then to find ways to deal with it. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Langley Middle School eighth-grader Maddie Jerome carefully reviews the worksheet used by secondary students taking an immersive course on bullying last month. The two-day event focused on getting kids to admit a problem exists, then to find ways to deal with it.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

Two years ago, a young student at South Whidbey High School became the target of bullies.

“It was intolerable,” said high school intervention counselor Rachelle Bennett. “The student finally chose to move to another school as a method of escape.”

While the content of the bullying behavior — rumors, threats, humiliation — was not new, the distribution strategy was: Text messages delivered via cell phones were sent out saying terrible things about the student.

To help prevent such things from happening again, the South Whidbey School District has developed specific policies and procedures to deal with “cyber bullying.”

“Any bullying, in any form that occurs, is not tolerated,” said District Superintendent Fred McCarthy. “Generally, our schools are very safe, but we are taking the situation seriously.”

Many students have learned that bullies are no longer found just on the playground. With text messaging, computer “chat” rooms, MySpace and Facebook, they’ve moved to cyberspace. Experts say cyber bullying is one of the fastest growing problems facing school administrators and local governments around the country.

The Web site iSafe.org, a leader in cyberspace education, found that 42 percent of kids have been bullied online — one in four, more than once. And a startling 35 percent have received online threats.

One noted case happened to eighth-grade student Kylie Kenney in Vermont. From junior high through her sophomore year of high school, Kylie was forced to deal with Web sites created by her classmates that featured names like “Kill Kylie Incorporated” that were filled with threatening, homophobic remarks about the young girl.

The kids obtained screen names with handles close to Kylie’s name and used them to send suggestive remarks and sexual advances to Kylie’s teammates on the field- hockey team.

There are two primary kinds of cyber bullying: direct attacks via messages sent to specific targets, and cyber bullying by using friends to help bully the victim, either with or without the accomplice’s knowledge.

“Sometimes, teenage girls will spread vicious rumors about a former friend. In this day and age, it spreads fast and can do great damage,” Bennett explained. “Great damage to all parties involved.”

“Cyber bullying psychologically removes the filters that existed when kids used the phone or were face-to-face,” added Rob Prosch, principal at South Whidbey High School. “One of our jobs is to educate students to understand how fast this can spread.”

Prosch added that while a cyber-bullying incident can begin on a student’s home computer, it can escalate into the schools.

“Then we have to deal with it,” he said.

And quickly, Bennett noted.

“A young person can text-message another person about anything, and that message can reach 50 people in 60 seconds,” she said.

The district is evaluating an Internet safety program that will be given each year for elementary, middle and high school students.

“Principals go from class to class to talk about the importance of being safe online at the start of the school year,” said McCarthy. “But we plan to do more.”

The program will warn kids to avoid revealing personal information such as a phone number or home address on Web sites. It will explain the very real dangers of posting personal photos on social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

The district is already off to a strong start.

With money provided by local businesses and the PTA, the district recently faced the bullying issue head-on.

For two days at Langley Middle School, all secondary students went through a series of intensive exercises run by the Safe School Ambassador program.

“If bullying behavior is ignored, it becomes the norm,” said facilitator Annette Schyadre.

In one exercise, she had students and staff — LMS principal Rod Merrell included — stand along one side of the gym.

She asked them to step forward in response to simple questions about their favorite music or foods.

Gradually, Schyadre zeroed in on whether they had ever felt left out, or had left out classmates, from some school activity.

Then she asked those who had been victims of bullies, or had bullied others, to step forward. Some bravely stepped forward, others held back.

She asked if anyone had ever sent a nasty note via their cell phones or e-mail, and about a third of the kids crossed the line.

But when she asked, “How many want this school to be safe for everyone, physically and mentally?,” they all answered yes.

“This exercise creates the mood and environment needed to get them to open up,” Schyadre noted. “You can feel the wheels turning in their heads as each question is posed.”

Being aware while online is a message that teachers will continue to stress.

“Being a digital good citizen is more than being technology literate,” McCarthy said.

“Living safely and civilly in an increasingly digital world requires all of us — administrators, parents, students and community members — to maintain high expectations. Information posted on the Internet is public and permanent and can have a long-term impact on a person’s life and career.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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