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Schools and cyberbullying: Fighting harassment online

Posted on Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Monique Martin, an aid at Renaissance Charter School of Poinciana, talks to students about bullying during the school's Bullying Prevention Assembly.

Monique Martin, an aid at Renaissance Charter School of Poinciana, talks to students about bullying during the school’s Bullying Prevention Assembly.

By: Tiffanie Reynolds

This is the fifth article in the News-Gazette’s series on bullying. It discusses the prevalence of cyberbullying, and what the community is doing to fight back.

School designees, schools’ policies on bullying, even the Osceola County School District-wide group Stop Bullying Now as well as smaller anti-bullying groups on school campuses all started from one issue: cyberbullying.

It’s an issue that has become more prevalent among students, especially middle and high school students, over the past decade. At first, it was largely ignored, seen as an extension of bullying done on school campus. But, as more cyberbullying cases ended in suicide, groups from school districts to state government began to take the issue of bullying in schools seriously.

“That’s really turned the tide,” Angel Beltran, Poinciana crime prevention deputy for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office. “Because, it’s one thing to say something negative about a person, but it’s another where it goes to the extreme where that person goes into some state of depression, which leads to not thinking clearly, and unfortunately taking their life.”

He was one of many speakers at the Bullying Prevention Assembly at Renaissance Charter School of Poinciana on Thursday. Cyberbullying was one of his biggest points in his presentation. After nearly every student raised their hand when asked if they have a Facebook account, he talked to them about not only the dangers that students face on social media, but also how they expose themselves to adults that want to harm them.

For years, law enforcement could do little in cases of cyber harassment and stalking. But, since 2008, Florida has passed state laws and statutes giving officers more power, and it has spurred them to become more active in fighting cases online as well as promote cyberbullying prevention. Today, most law enforcement agencies are equipped with an IT department where detectives specifically investigate cyber crimes.

The first of these changes was the Jeffery Johnson Stand Up for All Students Act in 2008 that gives school districts a detailed definition of bullying, including cyberbullying and guidelines on how districts should combat it. Cyberbullying reached state law with the addition of  “electronic communication” to the Florida Written Threats Law in 2010, followed by adding “cyberstalking” to Florida statute 784.048 on stalking in 2011. In 2013, the state passed Florida House Bill 609, which specifically defines the parameters of cyberbullying and dictates the power that school districts have when cyberbullying cases occur.

Still, cyberbullying continues to happen. A study by Brett Holfeld and Mark Grabe of the University of North Dakota states that one in five middle school students report being cyberbullied in the past year, and 55 percent of students report being cyberbullied within the past month.

Jazmanny Surita, a seventh grade student at Renaissance Charter and speaker in the school’s Bullying Prevention Assembly, said that he had to delete his Facebook account to get away from bullies online. Genesis Facey, also a seventh grader and Bully Prevention speaker, cited cyberbullying to be worse than bullying on campus.

“You don’t know who it is. Like you don’t know if it’s a popular person. If it is a popular person, then all the other people will start bullying you, and then they’ll start making a whole page about you,” Facey said.

For public school designees, cyberbullying is the hardest to track and delegate without the help of parents, or evidence from students. Often, it isn’t until the bullying happens on school campus before they can conduct an investigation.

Maggie Cundiff, designee and dean of Kissimmee Middle School, said that many of her investigations begin as gossip either on campus or social media. And, even if the bullying did begin on school grounds, continued harassment on social media escalates for the victim. A designee is a school official who is trained to deal with bullying cases.

“Kids don’t understand the effects of it, and they don’t understand that once you post something on Facebook, or whatever, it doesn’t go away. That it can be retrieved,” Cundiff said.

A designee’s job is even more difficult in high school, where a majority of bullying happens only over social media. This is compacted by high school students not speaking up for their peers in fear of becoming involved. Alternatives like an anonymous “Speak Out” box helps designees respond to situations, but often do not hear about cyberbullying until after the fact.

Designees and law enforcement officials agree that it’s working in partnership with everyone involved that will begin to slow down the frequency of cyberbulying cases. It will take parents becoming more involved with their children’s online activity, friends reporting for each other and school staff, along with law enforcement, to act on each case quickly and deliberately to stop online harassment from happening again.

“If society or the community doesn’t get a handle on that sort of thing, in partnership with law enforcement, it’s going to get out of hand. It’s just going to continue, and even though there’s the media that does a good job of highlighting those important cases, I guarantee you that for every one that’s charged, there might be ten that no one knows about yet,” Beltran said.