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By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The school district here is raising community consciousness about the dangers of cyberbullying.
Mental-health experts, social service workers, and the county’s district attorney will be on hand at the high school auditorium the evening of Wednesday, May 18, for a forum called “Taking a Stand: A Community United to Confront Bullying and Other Issues Facing our Youth.”
“Research has shown it can’t be dealt with by the school alone,” said Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. “The home-school connection is really important. We want to make sure parents are aware.”
John Halligan is the keynote speaker. His 13-year-old son killed himself after being bullied in school and online. (See related story.) Halligan will speak at 7 p.m. on the lessons he’s learned about bullying, cyberbullying, and teen depression.
Lisa Patierne, an assistant principal at Guilderland High School, learned about Halligan from her niece, a guidance counselor in Connecticut. “We talk shop. She said, ‘You have to come see him,’” recalled Patierne. “His presentation is very powerful. He makes you realize it could be anyone’s child.”
One of the major differences between face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying, she said, is “there’s no reprieve now.” Patierne explained, “It’s constant. Kids used to be able to get away from it when they went home.” Now, they use their computers or check their cell phones everywhere.
“Words hurt,” said Pateirne.
Another difference is that cyberbullying can spread rapidly, well beyond an immediate audience, and the perpetrator isn’t always readily identifiable.
One of the things that school leaders focus on, Patierne said, is the need for kids to tell an adult if they’re being bullied or if they know someone who is. “Everyone has the right to feel safe,” she said.
Asked how prevalent cyberbullying is at Guilderland, Singleton said, “The level of cyberbullying in our district is relatively low. We’re thankful for that but cognizant that it is different than face-to-face bullying. It has the potential to spread very quickly. We’re hoping this will be pro-active,” he said of the forum.
Policy and law
Four years ago, school board member Catherine Barber, who then headed the policy committee, expressed the same sentiment as the committee drafted a groundbreaking policy on cyberbullying. “We’re trying to be pro-active,” she said.
The policy, which was adopted by the school board in 2008, defines cyberbullying and cyberthreats; encourages victims to go to adults, like parents or teacher; and creates a process through which the victims can get help.
“Cyberbullying and cyberthreats experienced by a child or young adult may not be immediately evident to a parent or teacher, but it is highly intrusive and the hurt being caused can be very severe…,” the policy says. “Helping young people understand how actions can cause harm to others, especially when it occurs anonymously, is one of the many challenges that this policy regulation seeks to address.”
Work is currently being done to revise the policy to make it conform to the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, which schools have to implement by the 2012-13 school year, Singleton said.
The act requires both anti-bullying and character education, he said. Currently, at Guilderland, sixth graders are taught “online etiquette” in their technology course where they are informed about “good cyber behavior,” said Singleton.
Albany County has recently passed a law on cyberbullying and David Soares, the county’s district attorney, will be at the May 18 forum to talk about it. “He’ll address the implications of online activities,” said Singleton. “Kids may feel anonymous,” he said of online taunting, for example. “But, really, they’re not; they leave a digital footprint.”
Asked if the school would get involved if a student complained of online harassment that was generated from outside the school, for instance from a home computer.
“Legally, it is a gray and difficult area,” said Singleton. “Our understanding, when it comes to online use outside the school building is, if it impacts the learning environment, we have the authority and the right to act. That has been our position all along.”
Patierne said that, currently, if a complaint is made about bullying, “We investigate…And we always ask the victim, ‘What would you like us to do?’” Some students say they just want the harassment to stop.
The offending student is talked to and parents are called, said Patierne. “In most cases, it stops,” she said. “It could go as far as a superintendent’s hearing and suspension from school…It’s never ignored.
Sometimes, the school resource officer gets involved, she said. Brian Forte, with the Guilderland Police, has worked full-time at Guilderland High School for over a dozen years.
When the cyberbullying policy was being drafted, Forte told The Enterprise that he typically deals with up to a dozen cases of cyberbullying or cyberthreats each year. One of the most dramatic, he said, was an e-mail that raced through the school, stating skinheads were going to do violence there, causing widespread concern and absenteeism.
“The normal stuff we get is [a message that says], ‘I’ll beat you up in school,’” said Forte. Or, he said, when a couple breaks up, the boy or girl “will say bad things in an instant message.” He went on, “Recently, a guy said he was going to send inappropriate pictures around.”
Often, victims of the bullying will talk to him or to a teacher or administrator, Forte said. “If we can identify the sender, we’ll have a conversation with them,” he said; often, this is not possible.
“Sometimes, it could be two people who don’t get along, and we can resolve it with mediation,” he said.
“Every case is different,” Forte said, but few of them result in arrests. “It’s like telephone harassment,” he said. “It’s hard, legally, to prove who sent the message. The burden of proof is on us.”
His advice to parents is, “Pay attention to what your kids are doing on the computer.” While it’s possible to buy a silent tracking program, which records keystrokes to de-code messages, Forte said, “The best advice is to be involved with your kids on the Internet. Know where they’re going. Have open discussions… Don’t stuff a computer in your kid’s room. Have it out in the open. Have all their passwords, so it’s open and free. It’s the World Wide Web; everyone’s watching…Parents that take those extra steps generally don’t have problems.”
He concluded, “Education is the key to public safety.”
“It takes a village…”
After the suicide of a Guilderland student in 2009, a packed community forum was held at the Guilderland Town Hall. Many of the agencies that were on hand at that forum will be at the high school on May 18.
“In light of everything going on in the news with bullying and suicide,” said Patierne, “we wanted to hold a forum that brings it to the surface.”
Representatives from these groups will be available at the high school from 6 to 9 p.m. on May 19:
United Way 211, with Crisis Chat and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline;
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention;
Capital District Psychiatric Center;
Albany County Department for Children, Youth and Families, including Children’s Mental Health, Child Protective Services, Youth Bureau, Prevention Programs, and Healthy Families;
New York State Office of Mental Health: Suicide Prevention Center;
Albany County Mobile Crisis/CART Team;
St. Catherine’s Center for Children and the Bryon Center;
Capital Region Child and Adolescent Mobile Team; and
Capital Region Employee Assistance Program.
“If we want kids to be successful academically,” said Patierne, “we have to provide an environment that’s safe.”
She went on, “All kinds of people should come to this. I’m bringing my mother and my good friends with children…
“You know the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ That is the truth.” Patierne concluded, “They’re our future.”
The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011