Modern technology takes a sinister turn
PRESCOTT - Remember when escaping the school bully meant avoiding him on the playground at recess or walking home along a different route?
Eventually though, the victim would come face to face with the bully. There was no doubt about who was the school bully; everyone knew him, or her.
Today, it might not be so easy to find the bully in the schoolyard.
Students are using the same technology that allows people to communicate with anyone anywhere as a form of bullying.
"Cyberbullies" use cell phones, e-mail, blogs and Internet sites to harass their victims.
One thing that has not changed is the definition of bullying.
Granite Mountain Middle School Counselor David Hunt said, "Bullying is negative behavior intended to inflict harm or discomfort to a person over a period of time."
GMMS Vice Principal Paul Manz said bullying is repeated harassment.
Cyberbullying has reached such proportions that Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard on May 30 kicked off National Internet Safety Month by encouraging young people to take the Megan Pledge and take a stand against cyberbullying.
"Kids no longer need muscle to bully and torment their peers," Goddard said. "Some young people use websites, cell phones, instant messaging, chat rooms and blogs to harass, threaten and ridicule. The impact on the victim can be devastating and even tragic. There are steps parents and their children can take to stop Internet bullying."
The Megan Pledge campaign follows the tragic death in 2006 of 13-year-old Missouri teen Megan Meier, who took her own life after being the victim of harassment and ridicule online.
Cyberbullies exploit certain aspects of technology. Hunt said they hide behind temporary e-mail addresses, use false identities, instant message, and use cell phones to send text messages from a blank account.
"The bottom line is there is no face-to-face contact," Hunt said.
Manz said cyber technology gives bullies the "ability to take on any persona. They can live out any fantasy."
Today's young people have easy access to cell phones and computers. Unfortunately, that access rarely comes with any supervision. Despite protests from young people, Hunt said computers should be located in a common room in the house. He also said parents should monitor what their children are doing on-line.
Manz said that if parents think this is intruding on their child's privacy, they should realize "it is their job, and it is called parenting."
Cyberbullies are a minority. However, Hunt said schools are seeing behavior that is more malicious and it is "working its way down to younger aged children. Most of what happens takes place at home."
Manz recommends blocking websites where children can post a personal profile. He also recommends not having text messaging on cell phones.
As much as they would like to think so, few parents really know what their children are doing on line.
In a survey by i-SAFE, a nonprofit foundation that helps people take control of their Internet, of 1,350 parents, 93 percent said they have established rules for their child's Internet activity. However, 37 percent of 12,650 students in grades 5 through 12 said their parents gave them no rules on using the Internet.
An additional survey the group has done of 11,900 students in grades 5 through 12, 58 percent admitted to using the Internet unsafely, inappropriately or illegally.
Electronic messages are quick to send - doing their damage in short order. According to an i-SAFE survey of students in grades 4 through 8, 42 percent have been bullied online; 35 percent have been threatened online; 58 percent admit someone has said mean or hurtful things online; 53 percent admit to having said mean or hurtful things to another person; and 58 percent have not told their parents or an adult about something mean or hurtful that happened to them online.
"A bully can't physically hurt someone over the Internet, but enough threats (or ridicule) can lead to self harm. Children become afraid to go outside or to leave their home," the counselor said.
GMMS School Resource Officer Keith Crabtree said cyberbullying often starts when one student does not like another. The bully, either by himself or herself or with other students, will start posting information of a personal nature on the web, or sending it by cell phone.
Hunt said every bully is a coward at heart. However, as a counselor, he realizes that a bully may be a "disheartened child who may have been bullied himself or herself. The thing is, cyberbullies could be any child."
Crabtree said preventing cyberbullying is one area where parents are key.
"Parents need to watch out, especially with middle- and early high-school students, when their children are on the computer. The computer should be where the parent can see it. Parents should also have access to their children's e-mail."
Crabtree said children need a high level of supervision when using the computer.
"Parents should exercise the same supervision over them to the same extent of any other activity," Hunt said.
Crabtree said if students are "just posting mean stuff, it is not a police issue. But when things get to the point of threats or harassment, it becomes a police matter."
While people often association boys with bullies, Manz said cyberbullying is not "gender biased. Anyone can be anyone on the Internet."
The assistant principal said parents should talk to their children about cyberbullying.
"Don't be afraid to be the adult," he said.
Hunt said there are online resources to protect children.
I-SAFE.org is nonprofit foundation whose mission is to educate and empower students, parents, seniors and community leaders to safely and responsibly take control of their Internet experiences.
NetSmart.org is an interactive workshop and educational safety resource from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for children ages 5 to 17, parents, guardians, educators and law enforcement that uses age-appropriate 3-D activities to teach children how to stay safer on the Internet.
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