On Monday of this week, nine high school students of South Hadley, Massachusetts were charged in the case of 15-year old Phoebe Prince who, after months of being bullied online and in school, took her own life on January 14 of this year. The criminal charges range from stalking to criminal harassment to violations of civil rights (and in 2 cases, statutory rape).
It appears many of the egregious acts of those bullying Phoebe Prince were done at school. While it is not yet clear to what degree these students harassed Phoebe through text messaging or on social networking sites, it seems they were not humbled by their potential role in what ultimately happened to her. According to the Boston Globe, they “went on Facebook and mocked her in death.”
Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but the Internet gives bullies the ability to continually humiliate their victim and amplify their actions beyond a school’s borders. And while codes of conduct and procedures to deal with bullying in schools have existed for some time, the issue is further complicated when bullying begins, is supplemented by, or is solely done through the Internet. Teachers and administrators are sometimes not aware of what might be happening online, are unsure of the boundaries of their responsibility with cyberbullying, or are simply ill-equipped to handle it if they do know about it.
People in Massachusetts are agonizing over recent suicide cases like Phoebe’s and of 11-year old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield, MA, and the state has recently passed anti-bullying legislation that will require schools to report and investigate bullying cases – much like they are required to do when they suspect a child is being abused at home.
There is currently a lot of criticism being directed towards the principal and superintendent of South Hadley High School. Many are questioning how much they knew, when they knew it and why they responded more slowly and less aggressively than the situation seemed to necessitate.
The new law attempts to address the ambiguities surrounding a school’s role in bullying and cyberbullying cases. It requires school officials to undergo training so they can recognize it – online or off – and report it to their principals. Principals in turn are required to investigate and contact law enforcement if they conclude that the behavior is criminal.
I applaud these efforts to bring clarity to a school’s role in dealing with bullying and to support teachers and staff with the right training to be most effective in that role. A lot of positive things can come from this change. Ultimately, however, our goal should be to address the real root cause.
How do we ensure bullying doesn’t escalate to the point where a teacher has to trigger the process required by this new law? What are we doing at home to teach our kids about common decency and respect for others? How do we make kids aware that the Internet does not make them invisible or immune to the consequences of their actions? And how can we empower the victims and the majority of kids, most of whom don’t engage in it, to stand-up against this vile behavior?
If we are in a position to guide a young person on how to use the Internet safely, we should put equal emphasis on its appropriate use. This is not just a school’s responsibility:
1 – Kids should be taught what bullying/cyberbullying is, and at what point it can be considered a criminal offense. They should always treat others online with respect.
2 – If they are being bullied, kids should tell a parent or teacher and save the evidence. They should not retaliate and further incite their aggressors, but instead ignore them.
3 – Parents should inform their child’s school immediately.
For more information on How to Deal with Cyberbullying visit: www.trendmicro.com/go/safety
Parents and kids can also raise concerns or ask questions about cyberbullying in the Forum at www.connectsafely.org