Monday, April 26, 2010 · Last updated 5:02 p.m. PT
Not just on the playground anymore: Seattle schools fight Web bullies
By ELIZABETH M. ECONOMOU
SPECIAL TO SEATTLEPI.COM
In recent months, Mike Donlin, senior program consultant for the Seattle Public School District's prevention-intervention program and the mastermind behind the district's year-old cyberbullying-prevention curriculum (for middle-school students) says there's been an upsurge -- about 40 communications per month --in the number of calls and e-mails about how to cope with the ever-increasing threat of cyberbullying.
Donlin says parents, teachers, counselors and school administrators at all grade levels want help. So do others are at private and public schools across the state and nation.
"All of a sudden, there's a realization that something is going on," says Donlin.
He suspects that the high-profile case of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who killed herself after being the victim of cyberbullying at South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts earlier this year has spurred widespread concern.
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as "willful and repeated harm through the use of cell phones and other electronic devices." It also goes by the following names: "electronic bullying," "online bullying," "e-bullying" and "Internet bullying," among others.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one-third of teenagers throughout the country have been targets of online bullying; mid-teens, aged 14 to 17, are most likely to be victims of online harassment; and perpetrators of online bullying (similar to real-world bullying) are generally the same age as their victim.
Additionally, bullied teens, and often bullies themselves, have higher levels of depression and other psychological issues, substance abuse and delinquency.
And while issues of identity theft and online predators seem to be on everyone's radar screen, studies show that cyberbullying impacts more young people than better-known cyber issues.
Even more worrisome, notes Donlin, is that behaviors previously associated with high school kids are filtering into the elementary schools, and younger children are engaging in more overt nasty, sexual, dangerous kinds of things online. That is getting the attention of more and more adults.
"And there's no single inoculation, no one-stop fix," he says, despite myriad and desperate appeals.
Last month the Seattle School Board was among the first local education agencies in the nation to revamp its Internet-use policy in response to Title II of the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008, known as "the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," according to Donlin.
The revised policy mandates that Seattle Public Schools educate all students about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social- networking platforms, such as Facebook and Formspring, and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness and response.
The policy is nothing to scoff at.
If the district fails to comply, it could jeopardize its E-Rate compliance and lose about $700,000 in E-Rate benefits annually, such as huge discounts on technology purchases, from the Federal Communications Commission, says Donlin.
Meanwhile, the Washington state Legislature, says Donlin, recently strengthened the state's anti-harassment law -- which covers electronic forms of harassment including cyberbullying and dovetails with the revised School Board Internet-use policy and the district's existing anti-harassment policy. The Evergreen State was already on the forefront of cyberbullying legislation, according to www.socialsafety.org
, a Web site dedicated to teaching teens about the dangers of social networking.
Washington is the only state whose legislature has proposed meting out punishment for cyberbullying that occurs off-campus yet threatens a student's ability to learn in school.
Earlier this year, McClure Middle School in Queen Anne made headlines when Principal Sarah Pritchett demonstrated the district's zero-tolerance for online harassment.
She suspended 28 students for allegedly bullying a classmate on the Internet.
The incident involved a Facebook page and included both male and female students in grades sixth through eighth.
Pritchett says the off-campus activity spilled onto school grounds and created a hostile and intimidating environment, compromising the safety of students. Part of teaching the whole child says Pritchett is realizing what goes on beyond our [school] walls affects students' learning. "When you ignore things," says Pritchett," they tend to increase in magnitude."
More often than not, says Donlin, there is a connection between the real world and the virtual one as in the case of Phoebe Prince.
"What we're seeing more and more is where there is cyberbullying there is probably brick-and-mortar bullying going on as well."
And that can manifest in a variety of ways, says Donlin, such as a school-yard brawl or the inability of a bullied student to focus on learning.
Still, says Donlin, misconceptions about cyberbullying abound among adults, especially that online bullying is no big deal. "It [cyberbullying] is real, it's vicious, and it hurts. Adults, very often, do not see or hear about it until something blows up in their faces," he says.
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