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Schools: Cyberbullying - Technology adds to an age-old problem

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Technology-savvy youth have given up bullying with their fists and are relying on new tactics.

Called cyber-bullies, these children and teens take advantage of cell phone texting features, e-mail and social networking websites to tease, name-call, threaten and socially exclude their peers. They post pictures, mean-spirited comments or pretend to be someone else while online.

That hurts, according to Ayanna Shivers, a Waccamaw Middle School guidance counselor.

“Bullying, or what have you, can affect a person’s self-esteem. That’s one of the things we try to prevent,” she said.

In Georgetown County schools, district policy prohibits students from bullying or intimidating other students, staff or third-parties in school if it prevents the student from learning. Students can file complaints with their schools if they feel they are being harassed.

Tim Carnahan, principal of Waccamaw Intermediate School, believes cyber-bullying is more prevalent at the middle-school level as well.

“I think it starts with our age group,” he said. “But it’s not as large of a problem as it is at the middle and high school levels.”

David Hammel, principal of Waccamaw High School, also said cyber-bullying seems to be moving toward the middle school level.

“We occasionally will have some issues, and most of the time those issues will go on off campus,” he said. William Dwyer, principal of Waccamaw Middle School, said he wanted to get more information from the district before commenting.

Although principals believe middle school is the age group with the most cyber-bullies, studies show it exists among younger students, too.

In a study performed by a nonprofit, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, one-sixth of the children surveyed reported that a peer said something embarrassing about them or threatened them online in the last 12 months.

From what Carnahan has heard, he believes parents of children at those ages follow their children’s online and phone activity. “The kids will tell me that their parents check their Facebook pages, and their computers,” he said. “So many of the kids say, ‘that’s an invasion of my privacy.’ I just tell the kids that it is their parents’ job to keep them safe.”

Carnahan said he encourages parents to continue to check phone and online records, but said he knows it’s tough to “stay on top of it.”

“Kids are savvy with the technology,” he said. “A lot of times parents don’t have the knowledge, and I’m included in that category, and it becomes a lot more challenging.”

In a 2009 survey taken by Cox Communications, an internet provider, 15 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds said they had been cyber-bullied while online. About 10 percent said they’d been cyber-bullied by cell phone, and about 7 percent said they had bullied someone online.

The Fight Crime study reported that one-third of the teens surveyed were cyber-bullied during the year.

Kelly Kelley, risk manager for Georgetown County School District, said guidance counselors received cyber-bullying training last year and brought statistics like that, along with other information about cyber-bullies, back to schools.

“The main thing they focused on was the difference between girls’ and boys’ bullying,” Kelley said. “You always talk about bullying as boys, and they do more of the physical bullying and fighting. Girls are pretty sly about it.”

They also learned about “sexting.”

“A lot of teen girls will send nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and suggestive texts, and it is harmful,” Kelley said. “A lot of things that children don’t understand is that it is also illegal.”

She said the district is aware of the issue, and if cyber-bullying does occur and affects students’ ability to learn, they can go to a school administrator, and the administrator will follow district policy.

The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office recently launched a program that allows people to report crimes anonymously through text messages.

Texting tips could make it easier for students to report cyber-bullies, said Lt. Neil Johnson, a spokesman for the office.

“We’re not promoting doing it in class,” he said, but “there may be something going on that a teenager is not going to tell you.”

The system allows deputies to contact the sender through a third party.

Johnson also noted that cyber-harrassment seems to be increasing among adults, too.

“We have noticed in the recent past that there is more with Facebook, MySpace and e-mail in general,” he said.

When students are involved, Hammel said, he can usually bring them together and they can resolve the issue.

“Thankfully we haven’t had a lot of that,” he said. “But it’s something we’re always on the lookout for.”

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