Middle school dealing with cyber-bullying

Bullying used to mean a push on the playground. Now it can mean the entire school pushing play to watch a video of the attack online, over and over.

Ashland Middle School has dealt with a few cases of cyber-bullying this academic year, Assistant Principal Ken Kigel said.

"There have been other cases of it over the years, but it seems like it's becoming more prevalent," he said. "The social networking sites have really caught on. We're just in a different world now."

Hoping to educate parents, who sometimes aren't as familiar with technology as their children, Ashland police and the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force are holding an Internet safety class at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Ashland Middle School library, 100 Walker Ave.

Cyber-bullying is using electronic communication to bully, intimidate or harass another person, according to Sgt. Josh Moulin, commander of the task force.

Often cyber-bullies threaten or make fun of other students by sending text messages or posting writing, videos or photos on social networking sites, such as MySpace or Facebook.

"These kids have something embarrassing happen or they get picked on, and it's photographed and videotaped and up on MySpace or YouTube in a matter of seconds," Moulin said. "And then it's there forever."

Police believe most of the cyber-bullying that occurs in Ashland goes unreported, he said.

"We're definitely concerned about it," Moulin said. "I think it goes on a lot more than we hear about."

Middle school officials usually learn of cyber-bullying after a parent or student reports it, Kigel said. "The difficulty for schools in general is that most of the activity is happening outside of school, but it definitely then has an effect on what's happening at school," he said. "It's kind of changing the whole way we think and have to deal with things."

After being cyber-bullied, some students have been afraid to come to school, Kigel said.

Police officials recommend that student victims of cyber-bullying print out proof of the bullying and contact school officials. If the bullying cannot be resolved, or threats are involved, police should be contacted, said Detective Carrie Hull with the Ashland Police Department.

"If it's to the level where they're asking themselves if it's criminal, they should probably be asking a police officer if it's a crime," she said.

Middle school officials have been able to resolve all of the cyber-bullying incidents so far, by working with the students involved and their parents, Kigel said.

Schools can suspend or expel students for cyber-bullying, Moulin said.

"What we rely on fairly heavily is the courts' decisions, which say even if cyber-bullying doesn't occur on campus, schools can still take disciplinary action over that," he said.

Prosecuting cyber-bullying can prove difficult, because it brings up freedom of speech issues, Moulin said.

A 2008 cyber-bullying case brought the matter to light. A Missouri mother, Lori Drew, was charged with cyber-bullying her daughter's friend, Megan Meier, who committed suicide after the MySpace hoax. Drew was convicted on misdemeanor charges of accessing computers without authorization, but the conviction was thrown out last year.

Police are often able to discover that cyber-bullying suspects have committed other crimes, Hull said.

Posting mean or threatening messages electronically can be easier than saying them face-to-face, but students sometimes don't understand that they can be just as hurtful, she said.

"Grade school and high school are hard enough," Hull said. "It's horrible now to have people saying mean things that are there forever. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to stop it is to delete it and not pass it on."

For more information about the Internet safety class or to RSVP, e-mail Hull at chull@ashland.or.us or call the middle school at 541-482-1611.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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