The Things They Face

Cyberbullying: A new form of schoolyard harassment

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/15/19

A smaller, yet not insignificant, problem that schools are facing is cyberbullying, when that name-calling, teasing and harassment goes online or over the airwaves. While the numbers for cyberbullying aren’t as high as normal bullying, Chatham educators and even law enforcement are keeping an eye out and offering help to those who face it.

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The Things They Face

Cyberbullying: A new form of schoolyard harassment

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Posted

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at “The Things They Face” as students prepare to head back to school. This week: cyberbullying. In part two next week, we’ll examine school safety.

Bullying is, unfortunately, a traditional part of the school experience, and in Chatham County it’s no different.

According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 44.7 percent of Chatham County middle schoolers said they had been bullied on school property, and 21.8 percent of Chatham high schoolers stated they had been bullied on school property, within the last year.

A smaller, yet not insignificant, problem that schools are facing is cyberbullying, when that name-calling, teasing and harassment goes online or over the airwaves. While the numbers for cyberbullying aren’t as high as normal bullying, Chatham educators and even law enforcement are keeping an eye out and offering help to those who face it.

The school-aged generation has computers and technology in its blood. The YRBS stated that 41.2 percent of Chatham high schoolers “played video or computer games or used a computer three or more hours per day on an average school day,” and 40 percent of middle schools did the same on any day.

The 2017 YRBS revealed that 21.9 percent of Chatham middle schoolers had been electronically bullied — defined as bullying through texing, Instagram, Facebook or other social media. With the previous 12 months, the survey said, 16.2 percent of Chatham high schoolers experienced similar harassment. The survey’s results were released in the 2018 Chatham County Community Assesment. Its predecessor, the 2014 version, did not include any information on cyberbullying.

Tracy Fowler, Chatham County Schools’ director of student support services, says the district takes a holistic approach to bullying ­— including the digital kind — as part of the health and physical education program. The district will specifically focus in the near future on the younger grades as part of prevention.

“We’re going to actually have a specific programmatic approach to bully prevention in K-5,” she said. “The hope is that we really target the K-5 students and do supports and re-teach those things in middle school.”

The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the School Resource Officer program within the school system, had only three cases of cyberbullying reported to it within the last two years, which might explain Sheriff’s Office Captain Chris Cooper’s reflection on the topic.

“Victims sometimes neglect to report online stalking or bullying to law enforcement until it carries over into in-person harassment or communicating threats, which then become the primary charges,” Cooper said. “It’s possible online stalking/bullying is underreported overall.”

Most incidents happen outside the school setting, which means the school system may not have much of a role in enforcement and incident resolution, Fowler said. If out-of-school incidents affect the school environment, though, the district can take steps and intervene.

But for those students who are experiencing cyberbullying, there are a few things to know.

First of all, the sheriff’s office says, the victim should send a message to the perpetrator asking them to stop, then stop interacting with the offender. The victim should also take screenshots and keep documentation of any interactions.

“To aid an investigation, a victim should document any further harassment or contact attempts by taking screenshots, keeping a running log of what is occurring, maintaining a timeline of events and so on,” said Lora Rinaldi, the office’s victim services coordinator. “This helps establish a pattern of behavior.”

Rinaldi added that victims can block individuals on most social media sites, but that can make it harder for investigators to gather evidence if criminal charges or any disciplinary action is sought.

This advice extends to any cyberstalking that might occur among adults. Cyberstalking is much less frequent that cyberbullying if statistics are to be believed — various studies report that between 7-8 percent of Americans have been stalked online — but the sheriff’s office offers resources for those victims as well.

School district officials say that they want to do more education for parents on helping their kids be safe online. Each student in Chatham County has access to laptop while in school, and students starting in 8th grade get a laptop they can take home.

School board policy “expressly prohibits unlawful disrcimination, harassment and bullying,” and that extends to the cyber world, as the policy’s definition of “bullying” extends to “written, electronic, or verbal communications.” District policy also requires students to undergo “age-appropriate training” for students who use internet provided by the school, and that training involves promoting “student safety with regard to safety on the internet, appropriate behavior while online, including behavior on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness and response.”

Firewalls are put in place on the laptops that block “a lot of sites,” according to district Chief Operating Officer Chris Blice, but that doesn’t always work.

“Kids are very technology-savvy, and they find multiple ways to get around firewalls,” Blice said. “Probably the majority of them have computers at home.”

So reaching the parents with the applications that are popular and the dangers of the internet is a crucial part of prevention for the schools.

“I think that’s going to be something that will continue to expand,” Fowler said. “Some of that is saying to a parent, ‘You need to know what apps your kids are using on their phones, you need to know their passwords.’”

The sheriff’s office offers similar advice.

“The important thing for victims to remember is that they are not alone and help is available if they feel uncomfortable or threatened online,” said Lt. Sara Pack. “Parents and guardians should educate themselves about any apps or social media platforms their children are using regularly. It also helps to be familiar with the risks and resources in advance in order to assist any youth who may encounter this kind of crime.”

For more information on bullying and cyberbullying in particular, visit stopbullying.gov.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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