Internet, social media complicate bullying issue

MARIETTA – Warren Township resident Margie Wesel is at her wit’s end.

For more than a year, her 11-year-old daughter Pam has been bullied mercilessly, she said.

“They call me Bigfoot because I’m just really, really tall. One boy calls me ‘freak’ all the time,” said Pam, a fifth-grader.

“I know that kids call other kids names. But this is constant,” said Margie Wesel.

The Wesels have experienced how challenging it can be for parents and school administrators to stop this type of bullying and it can become even more so when the threats, taunting and humiliation moves onto the Internet for the world to see.

Online bullying and shaming is the new kid on the bullying block, and in many cases, the supervision and consequences necessary to stop it haven’t caught up with the times.

There may not be enough to go to law enforcement and there are questions as to whether or not it’s the responsibility of school officials to handle it.

“It’s a whole new ball game,” admitted Marietta High School Principal Bill Lee, who in his 35 years as an educator has seen bullying go from the playground to the Internet and to all points in between.

“Due to the magnitude of social media, it is very difficult to supervise what’s posted,” he added.

Nationwide, there have been dozens of reported cases of online “shaming,” where groups of youth pick on one person online. Often, the cases have involved taunting of girls for being sexually active or not being sexually active. Other times, they involve physical appearance.

That is a problem Williamstown High School seventh grader Kasey McNamara, 12, has noticed.

McNamara’s 15-year-old sister was bullied online last year for the way she dressed and looked, she said.

They found out that it’s hard to police online bullies, even for those who go to the authorities.

“Sometimes if you go to the office, they won’t always handle it, especially if it happens on the Internet and they can’t find it,” McNamara said.

Even if teachers and administrators could monitor everything, there is some debate as to what’s in their jurisdiction.

Schools can address instances of online bullying that are posted while the student is on school grounds, said Lee, but the lines for what happens outside of school hours are still being drawn.

“Our stance on that particular issue is if there is a nexus or connection between something that happens online and that comes back to school, then we can address it,” he said.

In 2011, a federal appeals court held up a West Virginia high school’s decision to suspend a female student who had created a web page suggesting another student had a sexually transmitted disease. The girl had argued the punishment was a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech.

“There are many cases in the courts, as we speak, helping to provide more guidelines as to what schools can and can’t do,” Lee said.

Almost a year ago, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed House Bill 116 into effect, requiring schools to re-write anti-bullying policies to address cyberbullying.

However, the bill did not specifically give schools the right or responsibility to handle incidents that happen outside of school. It does specify that disciplinary procedures for bullies can’t infringe on students’ rights under the First Amendment.

Legislation regarding online shaming and bullying is complicated, said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.

“You want to defend your kids. You don’t want anyone to feel unsafe. But it is a tricky area because of speech issues and trying to define what crosses that line,” he said.

There is also the concern that legislating that schools have to monitor what happens online would mean sending down an unfunded mandate, he added.

Ohio state Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, agreed that balancing constitutional rights makes the issue complex.

“Some of this may not always be something you can legislate,” he said, adding that it is an issue that warrants further exploration.

But the behavior being hard to punish is not the only problem, said Frontier High School guidance counselor Holly Cunningham. Before, home was a respite from school bullies. But that is no longer the case, she said.

“I think the biggest difference is now there is no escape,” said Cunningham. “Most of these kids take their phone to bed with them. They are seeing it literally around the clock.”

Local students say they see online taunts among people they know regularly.

“I’d say once every two nights or so you see something going down on Facebook,” said Marietta High School senior Holden Weihl, 18.

Oftentimes these Facebook battles are between two equally engaged parties, but sometimes, they are targeting a single person.

For example, said MHS senior Aaron Taylor, someone might start circulating a particularly unflattering photograph of a classmate on Facebook and it is not long before the whole school has seen the photo, many adding fuel to the fire by re-sharing it, or making disparaging comments.

“You might look at it for a second and sort of giggle, but then you realize that eventually the person is going to see it, and then you feel terrible,” said Weihl.

To compound the problem, harassing and embarrassing comments made online can be shared at lightning speed and to a much bigger audience than it would otherwise reach.

Cunningham said many of the online posts that are brought to her attention involve students from rivaling schools who do not even know one another.

As the school resource officer for Marietta City Schools, Marietta Police Department Patrolman Pat Gragan sees lots of harassing Facebook posts, tweets and text messages.

“I don’t think parents would believe some of the things coming out of these kids’ mouths,” he said.

Gragan said he reminds students that the things they post online are out there forever.

“Once you send something, it doesn’t go away,” he said.

Legally, minors can be charged under the telecommunications harassment act for any threats or harassing comments made online, he said. But criminal charges have been rare in his experience, he noted.

“Usually we resolved these things on a school level. We just bring the two kids in face to face and usually we can resolve it the first time,” said Gragan.

Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office added that youth can be charged with menacing if they make a threat that is capable of being carried out, but added he was not aware of any cases where that had happened.

To compound the problem, many of the cases likely go unreported, said Gragan.

“If we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything about it,” said Lee.

Students seem to be emboldened by the belief that their online activities are private and typically fly under the radar of authority figures, he said.

“There’s a certain degree of anonymity that gives you the opportunity to say something to a person that you wouldn’t say in person,” said Lee.

Students have also noticed that classmates are using social media as a means to disguise their bullying.

“They talk about people behind their backs,” said Williamstown High School sophomore Jonathan Hicks, 15, who added that he sees classmates targeted because they are different or because they belong to rivaling cliques.

“I’ve seen it where they don’t flat out say who they are talking about, but they’ll allude to someone,” added 13-year-old Tyler Beckett, a seventh-grader at Williamstown High School.

But as Gragan pointed out, once something is posted, tweeted or texted, it has already left a fingerprint that can never be erased. Someone with enough skill can retrieve these items even after they have been erased.

That’s a lesson now very apparent to two athletes in Steubenville, who are being charged with rape after pictures recently surfaced of the two young men with a naked, seemingly unconscious female high school student in August.

The online hacker group Anonymous retrieved deleted photos of 16-year-olds Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, members of the Steubenville High School football team, with the naked girl from nearby Weirton, W.Va., and reposted the photos online.

Then the case gained further attention when the group uploaded a 12-minute video of former student Michael Nodianos crassly joking about the girl’s condition and what had allegedly been done to her.

Besides the video, Nodianos sent several tweets the night of the rape including the message: “Some people deserve to be peed on.”

And there was no shortage of online commenters in the aftermath who blamed the victim for her fate. One person, commenting on a news story about the rape, said that drunk girls being raped at parties was “the price of admission.”

In another case drawing attention, 15-year-old Kylie Kylem tweeted about her depressed thoughts in November and a group of her classmates created twitter handle “KillYourselfKylie” and encouraged Kylem to “drink bleach” and cut herself.

Locally, Gragan and Cunningham said they have not seen cases go so far as encouraging self-harm, but such actions would be punishable under the law, noted Gragan.

This year’s Miss Ohio, Elissa McCracken, chose cyberbullying as her platform. McCracken herself was bullied via instant messenger in middle school and wants to help give other bullied children the tools they need to stop the situation.

“My message is to stop, block, and tell. Stop communicating with the bullies. Find someone to block them from communicating with you, and tell someone,” she said.

Educating children and parents on doing just that would be a big step, agreed Gentile.

“We need to teach victims of bullying that it is OK to speak up,” said Gentile, who added many children might hide instances of bullying for fear of making it worse.

“I think a dialogue with students and that student’s parents is entirely appropriate,” said Gentile. “Each school district would do well to come up with specific policies at a district level.”

And parents could be a key factor by both educating their children and monitoring their online activity, added Gragan.

“The majority of parents do not know what conversations go on with other children,” he said.

Parents should be vigilant about their children’s online activity and cell phone usage, or better yet, get rid of the cell phones entirely, he said.