Schools vs. cyberbullies

Just a few years ago, bullying meant physical or verbal harassment. Now, like so much of society, it has moved online and schools are seeking measures to protect students and discussing how involved school officials should be in student behavior that takes place largely outside of school.

The school board adopted a state-mandated policy prohibiting cyberbullying Monday, but board members said the policy is only the start and called for ongoing talks on the subject.

"It is a national problem and it definitely happens here &

and we need to deal with it," said board member Heidi Parker, who has been reviewing other districts' policies around the state.

"Many of us older folks may not even recognize what it is. We want to create a culture that works with kids to not support bullying."

Cyberbullying includes anything intended to harm or insult another person through text messaging, e-mails or posting photographs or videos online, according to the policy adopted by the board.

The middle school has had two incidents of cyberbullying this year, according to Jody Bradley, a child development specialist. The high school averages one incident a week, said Dean of Students Glenna Stiles.

Both said the schools have an obligation to prevent future incidents and deal with cases that affect a student's ability to thrive at school.

"If the incidents that happen on MySpace affect students' abilities to come to school and feel safe, we have to act on that. We are obliged to," Bradley said. "This is a public school and every student has the right to attend this school without fear."

The district has blocked several popular networking sites in an effort to keep kids safe and prevent cyberbulling, but kids can easily assume an online alias and send threatening messages or post embarrassing photos online from home, which makes enforcing policies difficult.

Because some kids may not realize how much trouble they can get into with cyberbullying, both Bradley and Stiles encourage parents to monitor their children's online activities, and have made an effort to visit classrooms and educate kids about both bullying and cybersafety.

"We all did stupid things in high school, but we didn't put them on public record," Stiles said. "We need to do a little bit better job on educating our students."

If a student is accused of cyberbullying but nothing can be proved, Stiles said all she can do is explain potential consequences.

"I can't prove that it's you, but you could get in a lot of trouble with this," she tells students. "You can either cut it out now, or you can keep doing it and let the law take things into its hands."

A few years ago, a group of middle school parents formed the Anti-Bullying and Harassment Committee and included cyberbullying in their study.

Marylee Oddo, a parent on the committee, said she would definitely support more discussion on cyberbullying from the school district. She has a daughter in high school and a son in middle school, neither of whom is allowed to use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook &

a rule she believes helps protect them from both cyberbullying and online predators.

"We haven't dealt with it personally, but of course it's something that I think about and I know that there's a risk for anyone who participates online with any kind of social networking areas," she said.

Board members said they would like to see parents and students involved in an ongoing discussion about activities in cyberspace, but the earliest it could happen is next fall.

"This is something we should really be engaging students on, on an ongoing basis, because unfortunately the whole online train is going to be moving constantly," said board chair Mat Marr. "Everything about being young today is moving online, including bullying, and we need to catch up."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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