Like the parents of most fifth graders, I've been visiting potential middle schools recently with a big list of questions. Near the top of the list is one that until recently would never have crossed my mind: How does each school deal with cyber bullying?
Reports of cyber bullying around the nation that has led to painful or even tragic outcomes — including suicide — have received widespread media accounts in the past year or so, striking real terror into the hearts of any parents with a pulse. A national conference that ends today (Nov. 17) has been devoted to that topic.
The conference aims to help educators parse problems like mean Facebook postings, texts that spread rumors, or Web pages promoting lies. It's sponsored by the Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides violence- and bullying-prevention programs to schools worldwide. Microsoft, the Cartoon Network, and Hazelden are also sponsoring the conference, entitled, "The Challenge and Promise of the Cyberworld: Bullying Prevention in the Age of the Internet." The conference features experts on topics that include online risks for youth, how to promote positive behavior in cyber space, and the latest research in bullying prevention.
Fellow parents I talk to who grew up without constant texting or Facebook postings — and that's most folks with a kid in elementary school on — feel ill-prepared to cope with these problems. Do you call the principal? What do you do when the cyber bully is anonymous? What happens if the text or posting happened after school?
We're not alone in our confusion, according to Mia Doces, a program developer who wrote the cyber-bullying curriculum for the Committee for Children as a companion to the organization's Steps to Respect, an anti-bullying program used in thousands of schools in the state and around the country. According to Doces, like parents, teachers and school administrators also feel like they don't always know the best path to prevent or react to cyberspace problems.
Teachers "are realizing it's something they can't necessarily (easily) detect at school," she says. "We're providing ways for teachers to reach out to families, to suggest ways for families to supervise online activities and cell phones."
Make no mistake, local schools are in the thick of it, Doces said: last January, 28 students at Seattle's McClure Middle School were suspended for periods ranging from two to eight days for cyber bullying. The students had participated in a Facebook page that targeted another student, although district officials said at the time no threats were made.
On an individual level, one Seattle father says cyber bullying has humiliated and hurt his child. Robert, who asked that his 11-year-old daughter’s real name not be used — we'll call her Emma — said it began recently when Emma e-mailed a picture of her bedroom to another friend. Emma's reflected face was captured in the mirror of her connecting bathroom in the picture.
"Her friend then, for some unknown reason, forwarded the picture to a boy in school who then forwarded the picture and started rumors that it was a picture of Emma naked or sitting on the toilet," Robert said. "This embarrassed Emma… It all started out pretty innocently and escalated from there. Emma had no expectation that the picture would be misinterpreted or that it would even be seen by anyone else. The boy used Emma's simple photo to stir things up and cause emotional distress to a fellow student. I suspect that is how much of this stuff starts.”
He said they had talked to school officials but hadn't heard what disciplinary actions may be taken.
Doces said the curriculum on cyber-bullying tries try to help kids anticipate what might happen in cyberspace, no matter how innocent their post or picture might be.
"We really encourage kids think ahead," she said. "It"s about TMI, too much information. It's about what to do if someone asks for a picture of yourself… You don't know what they're going to do with it."