Schools need to thwart persecution of their students in cyberspace

How do we stop hate? We may not be able to change what is in someone’s heart, but we can require civil behavior. When no one objects to bullying, it emboldens the transgressor. And passivity adds to the victims’ suffering.

Bullies have been with us since ancient times but modern technology has added a new dimension. Cyberbullying — hurtful or embarrassing material posted online — allows some tormentors to be anonymous and can spread far beyond in-person bullying.

The problem hit home Monday night when two women told the Voorheesville School Board of their concerns.

Julie Mazzaferro said her godchild and her godchild’s friend, both high school students, have been harassed at school and on a hate blog. “They’re torturing these two,” she said of the girls.

Our reporter, Jo E. Prout, obtained copies of the postings on a social networking site, since removed, which had pictures of the two students edited through Photoshop as though they were saluting like Nazi soldiers. Under the pictures were the words, “Jews,” “whores,” and “bitches.” Some comments posted by other students on the page were equally disturbing but so hurtful the girl’s godmother asked us not to print them. No one should be treated this way.

Mazzaferro said that her godchild’s grandparents were Russian Orthodox and were persecuted during the Holocaust. She said her goddaughter, a quiet girl and a good student, cries because she does not want to go to school now. 

Erica Smith, a recent Voorheesville graduate, told the board that there is an underlying culture of intolerance in the district. Smith said she told the board about cyberbullying last year where an autistic student’s face had been transposed over a swastika on Facebook. Smith was appointed to a character education committee that had just one meeting, she said.

Ideally, schools should be able to teach students to respect and appreciate others — lessons that last a lifetime. But there is a strain, recognized as far back as the 18th Century when Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote of the tension between the education of the individual, for freedom, and that of the citizen, for responsibility. How much can a school control?

The Voorheesville School Board president, David Gibson, responded to the women that the board is working hard to follow its policies and that students need to come to school and feel safe. He also said, “We don’t control what every student does after school.”

The board discussed the matter in closed session Monday and Gibson told our reporter afterwards, “Knee-jerk reactions don’t serve anyone very well. The school cannot be arbitrator of anyone in the community.”

He’s right that all sides need to be heard to discover who is at fault. Reading the postings and talking to those who know the girls, we believe there was a fight between two friends that, through online postings, grew into a hurtful persecution.

We’re particularly troubled by Mazzaferro’s assertion that the school staff has not taken her complaints seriously. Her godchild, she said, has been harassed since September — enduring weeks and weeks of teasing and torture. She came to the board as a last resort.

The district needs to adopt a policy that will deal with cyberbullying quickly and effectively. Voorheesville’s current policy on harassment, hazing, or bullying, adopted in April, isn’t directly applicable. While the policy names any “electronic communication or physical act which intimidates or threatens another….” it also limits the prohibition to that occurring on school grounds, school buses, or school-sponsored activities.

A year ago, the school board in neighboring Guilderland broke ground by drafting a more inclusive policy to prevent cyberbullying and cyberthreats. Speaking of the legal advantages of having a policy, Guilderland School Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said at the time, “Unless you have something in writing, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

The Guilderland policy specifies that cyberbullying and threats can occur on or off school property, both during and outside school hours. “Even if a student receives a threatening message at home, such message can directly impact the psychological and emotional well being of that individual,” it says.

The policy defines cyberbullying and cyberthreats; encourages victims to go to adults, like parents or teachers; and creates a process through which the victims can get help.

Brian Forte, with the Guilderland Police, who has worked full-time at Guilderland High School for a decade, said that he typically deals with up to a dozen cases of cyberbullying or cyberthreats each year. One of the most dramatic, he said, was an e-mail that raced through the school several years ago, stating skinheads were going to do violence there, causing widespread concern and absenteeism.

Usually, he deals with messages that say things like “I’ll beat you up in school,” or, after a couple breaks up, the boy or girl will say bad things or threaten to send inappropriate pictures, said Forte.

“If we can identify the sender, we’ll have a conversation with them,” Forte said; often this is not possible.

“Sometimes, it could be two people who don’t get along, and we can resolve it with mediation,” he said. “Every case is different,” he said, but few of them result in arrests.

It is important for school districts to have a policy in place that defines what is unacceptable and outlines a clear and expedient process for a victim to seek help and get results.

In an ideal world, parents would see that their children did not send threatening messages. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We believe that schools should step up to fill the void. It’s true, as David Gibson said, that a school district doesn’t control what every student does after school but we believe schools should be arbiters when their students are being hurt.

If the message from the district is clear and the disciplinary action is swift, it will dissuade further bullying. Often bullies have been bullied themselves and the school, being a place where students should be able to learn from their mistakes, should require counseling to help the bully learn new ways.

This should be a wake-up call for parents, too. They’re not off the hook. Officer Brian Forte had this sound advice for parents: “Pay attention to what your kids are doing on the computer.”

While it’s possible to buy a silent tracking program, which records keystrokes to de-code messages, Forte said, “The best advice is to be involved with your kids on the Internet. Know where they’re going. Have open discussion...Don’t stuff a computer in your kid’s room. Have it out in the open. Have all their passwords, so it’s open and free. It’s the World Wide Web; everyone’s watching...Parents that take those extra steps generally don’t have problems.”

The more people you make aware of the problem, he said, the easier it is to handle. He concluded with words that are worth repeating, “Education is the key to public safety.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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