Cyber-bullying presents challenges to schools

By Stephen Betts | Mar 14, 2019

Rockland police were called to Oceanside High School in December after someone sent harassing text messages both to students and the district's athletic director.

The person, who was unknown at the time, sent photographs of student athletes at parties. The person threatened to disseminate embarrassing information about certain student athletes. The person also threatened to disclose that another student was homosexual.

These are examples of the challenges that schools face with technology that allows bullying to go on, not just during school hours, but around-the-clock.

In the case of the text messages to the school in Rockland, city police obtained a search warrant to get records from telecommunications company Pinger to track down the individual sending the messages.

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent John McDonald said Wednesday, March 13, the identity of the person was determined, and it was another student at the school. The school took disciplinary action against the student, he said.

No criminal charges were filed.

Local superintendents say they take bullying seriously.

Schools are required to report the number of confirmed bullying cases to the Maine Department of Education. That includes cyber-bullying. During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 85 reported cases of cyber-bullying in Maine schools.

Statistics from the state agency for the 2017-2018 school year show that there were nine confirmed cases of bullying reported by RSU 13. There had been seven cases in 2016-2017. Only one of those confirmed cases reported by RSU 13 to the state involved cyber-bullying.

RSU 13 includes Rockland, Thomaston, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing.

The Five-Town Community School District reported eight cases of bullying at Camden Hills Regional High School in 2016-2017 and none in 2017-2018. Five cases in 2016-2017 were cyber-bullying. The Five-Town CSD encompasses Camden, Rockport, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville.

At Camden-Rockport Middle School, there were 10 reported confirmed cases of bullying in 2017-2018 and 11 in 2016-2017. There was one case of cyber-bullying in 2016-2017 at the middle school.

RSU 40 (Waldoboro, Warren, Union, Friendship and Washington) reported only two instances of bullying in the past two years -- both at the Miller School in Waldoboro during the 2016-2017 school year.

McDonald said RSU 13 has a strong anti-bullying policy. Five-Town CSD and SAD 28 Superintendent Maria Libby said those districts also have strong policies.

McDonald said that when cases are confirmed, the consequences can range from a talk with the student and parents to suspensions and expulsions.

The Rockland-area school superintendent said trying to deal with cyber-bullying is challenging for school administrators. He said a social media platform such as Snapchat allows texts to be sent and once the recipient reads them, they are deleted. And with Facebook, if someone has their account set to private, there is greater difficulty tracking down harassing or threatening posts.

He said the district's approach is to investigate cyber-bullying even if it occurs off school grounds when it is disruptive to a student or school. The district's policy defines bullying as an action that -- among other things -- creates "an intimidating or hostile educational environment for the student."

Examples of bullying listed in the RSU 13 policy are: repeated or pervasive taunting, name-calling, belittling, mocking, put-downs or demeaning humor; behavior that is likely to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others, including but not limited to gossip, spreading rumors and social exclusion; nonverbal threats and/or intimidation, such as use of aggressive, menacing or disrespectful gestures; threats of harm to a student, to his/her possessions, or to other individuals, whether transmitted verbally or in writing; blackmail, extortion, demands for protection money, or involuntary loans or donations; blocking access to school property or facilities; stealing or hiding books, backpacks or other possessions; stalking; and physical contact or injury to another person or his/her property

McDonald compared social media to the wild West and urged parents to carefully monitor their children's online activities. He said it is very attractive for students to be on social media and parents are reluctant to take away a child's smartphone or computer.

That is why monitoring children's activities is important, he said.

Younger children have not yet developed the interpersonal skills to realize that what they say online can have an impact, he said.

McDonald said that, contrary to popular belief, there is not a high incidence of bullying in the schools. He said if an incident is reported to the district, it will be investigated. He acknowledged that bullying can occur in locations where there is less supervision, such as on buses or on playgrounds, where no school staff may witness it.

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