Panel addresses issue of cyber-bullying
By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Fri., Nov. 9, 2012
“The problem of bullying is ubiquitous,” said Charles Margolis, chair of the South Windsor Human Relations Commission. With the Internet opening up countless new ways for people to interact -sometimes anonymously - parents, educators and children have noticed over the years that bullying has been taken to the cyber arena. To address this issue, the South Windsor Human Relations Commission held a panel discussion entitled “What every parent needs to know about bullying and cyber bullying” on Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Town Hall council chambers.
The first expert to speak was Dr. Bill Howe, who is a program manager at the State Department of Education, the chair of the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, and an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, Albertus College and Quinnipiac University. “We do have a serious problem with bullying,” said Howe. “Far too many children are being tortured emotionally… I believe it's a responsibility of every educator to ensure that every student that walks into a classroom is safe mentally and physically,” he said.
Howe discussed bullying in law, citing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which states that education programs receiving federal funds cannot discriminate against sex. This covers not just schools, but libraries, museums, hospitals and prisons. He noted that for many students, and even educational staff, the definition of sexual harassment is unclear. “Educators must be explicit with teens what sexual harassment is,” he said. Sexual harassment, he said, includes conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted and unwelcome, and interferes with a student's work. The most common places where it occurs are classrooms, hallways and at recess, and can include unwanted touch or advances, lewd remarks or displaying images of a pornographic nature. Schools have a legal obligation to have a policy preventing harassment, and to enforce it, Howe said.
According to Howe, the definition of bullying is repeated written, oral and electronic communications, and physical acts and gestures that cause physical or emotional harm or damage to the target's property, puts the target in reasonable fear, or creates a hostile school environment. “Not everything is bullying,” he adds. “Young children will often do things that are inappropriate.” But the true act of bullying is much more severe, and it is critical to address it early. “Young bullies tend to become adult bullies,” he said.
Following Howe was Michelle Pincince, project director at the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke more about cyber-bullying. “Cyber-bullying is bullying that happens electronically,” she said, which includes e-mails, instant messaging, chat rooms, social networking sites, cell phones, blogs, gaming sites, websites, discussion groups and message boards. With even young children exposed to social networks such as Club Penguin or Webkinz, the problem is found among elementary school students as well as middle and high schoolers. She stressed that using the Internet in itself is not a bad thing – it's how they use it.
One difference between cyber-bulling and bullying in person is that there is a level of anonymity. “It sometimes seems easier to say much more hurtful things if they're not sitting across from the person across the lunch table,” Pincince said.
The results of bullying can be tragic. Pincince explained that the website formspring.me was used to bully Phoebe Prince, a young woman in Massachusetts who committed suicide as a result of bullying.
What can families do to protect their children? The first step is opening a dialogue with your child, as only about 5 percent of middle-schoolers will tell their parents about cyber-bullying. “The majority of the time, it's not shared,” said Pincince. “These are conversations you have to actively initiate.”
She said a helpful visual to help keep children safe can be used with a toothbrush. “Treat a password like a toothbrush,” she said. “You probably wouldn't share a toothbrush even with your best friend.” Passwords are also like toothbrushes because you want to change it every now and then. For those who might be sending hurtful messages online, think of pressing the “send” button as squeezing a tube of toothpaste: once it's sent, it can't be taken back. “Would you want your mother to see what you sent? Your grandmother?” she said.
Pincince said parents should monitor their children's technology use. “It's not spying,” she said, and she encouraged parents to let their children know that they will be monitoring their activity ahead of time so that it's not a breach in trust. Parents must also stress not sharing personal information or online passwords.
If someone is the target of cyber-bullying, don't engage the bully. Save and identify the evidence and do not destroy it. Calmly report the offense to the school or Internet service provider, and get assistance from the school or police. Children need to protect themselves by stopping the behavior – block the person who did it to you – and tell a trusted adult.
“We tend to focus on the targets, but what if we find out our child IS the cyber-bully?” said Pincince. Get all the information you can and then talk to the child. Give them the benefit of the doubt, especially since people impersonate others online. It's also possible that they were inadvertent cyber-bullies: they regret what they said or didn't mean to send what they did.
Town Councilor Dr. Saud Anwar, one of the event organizers, explained that he recognized the cyber-bulling trend. As the father of two boys growing up Muslim in a post-9/11 America, they were concerned about what was happening in the school system. When Anwar met with others in the community, all had children from all levels of the school system who had experienced bullying.
Anwar said that his family tries to have at least one meal together daily, which provides a time to learn about the daily lives of the children. They also friend their children on Facebook, and they have access to their passwords. Anwar also encourages putting down the electronics every once in a while. “We try to reduce the screen time and have more human time during the day,” he said.
Emma Richard, a senior at South Windsor High School, also spoke. “A lot of times we turn a blind eye to the problem of bullying,” she said. “Most of the bullying I see is online. And most of the students are embarrassed and won't share it with adults, or think it's no big deal.” When she surveyed classmates, no one said cyber-bullying is a problem, but she found everyone has had a mean comment directed against them online.
She is working to bring Challenge Day to South Windsor. In this program, 100 students are chosen to participate, where they go through ice-breaker exercises designed to get the students to know each other better. Another powerful activity is when the program councilors asks participants a question, like, “Have you ever been called a mean name?” and if it applies to a student, they take a step forward. When you see the commonalities you have with other people, Richard said, you're less likely to bully them because you see yourself in them. The 100 students are then “trained” to spread the word and change the school climate to one where bullying is frowned upon. “If your peers think it's uncool to bully, you're less likely to do it,” said Richard. She will be fundraising for her $5,000 goal to bring the councilors in from California.
In closing, the speakers observed that a bystander’s role can make a world of difference in bullying situations. When Anwar heard about instances of bullying, “It wasn't the words of the bully that hurt the person as much as the silence of their friends,” he said.
Howe agreed. “Research shows that it often takes only one person to say 'don't do that,'” he said. He commended Richard for her sense of civic duty. “The most effective way to stop bullying is to teach children: 'I am my brother's keeper,’” Howe said.