story & photo by Amy Bartelloni, Contributing Writer
Cyber bullying wasn’t an issue that most parents had to deal with in their school days, but it’s a topic that’s very important to today’s students. On Thursday, March 7, the Bellingham school district brought in Eileen Kneeland from the Worcester District Attorney’s Office to educate parents on what type of technology kids have to navigate and deal with, focusing on the topic of cyber bullying.
Kneeland had given two age-appropriate presentations to Bellingham Memorial School students. This time, she presented much the same information to parents, alerting them to the definition of bullying, potential consequences, and the way new technologies can be used.
She touched on 2010’s anti-bullying law, enacted to make sure that students feel safe in school, with a focus on prevention, not punishment. The law states that every school district must have an anti-bullying policy in writing, and according to the policy they have to provide yearly education on the subject for students, parents, and teachers.
Kneeland discussed the specifics of what constitutes bullying, which she described as “intentional, aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative attention placing the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself/herself or of damage to his/her property.”
"So, intentionally and maliciously,” she clarified. “Bullies are mean, and they’re doing it purposely.” To be considered bullying, the behavior must be repeated three or more times and involve an imbalance of power. She explained how bullying is separate from conflict, a situation where both participants have equal power. The parties involved might be emotional or upset, but no one is in control. “Throughout our lives we’re going to have conflicts,” she told parents, but they don’t always involve an imbalance of power.
In year’s past, research was done by the phone or encyclopedia, or even notes passed in school, but today’s students can’t disconnect. “Technology is a great resource, but unfortunately it gives us an easier opportunity to make a big mistake very quickly,” Kneeland added.
She described cyber bullying as a much more subtle form of bullying. “It’s aimed at people’s peer groups. It’s there to make people feel afraid or scared or upset or embarrassed,” she explained. Because we have our technology with us all the time, cyber bullying can be done done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
She instructed parents on the idea of a digital footprint--a trail of data created using the Internet. It includes websites visited, emails sent, and information submitted online. This information can’t always be erased. Students are finding this out when they apply to colleges or for employment, and scholarships have been lost over things that students had posted online. She showed a video that urged students not to “lose a $140,000 scholarship for a 140-character tweet,” instead urging students to present themselves in a positive light online and showcase their achievements.
The concept that “delete” does not really exist is a hard one for students. “Everything is shared,” Kneeland said. “Once you hit ‘Send,’ it’s there for anybody to use.”
Even things students think they have deleted can be saved. “There’s no guarantee that someone’s not going to share something you sent with someone else,” she said, and websites such as archive.com have started to save deleted webpages online, so nothing is really gone.
Sharing passwords can be a big problem for students, and Kneeland encourages kids to change their passwords often so that no one can go onto their account and pretend to be them. She touched on what’s known as “I hate” groups, often directed at organizations or individuals. While students believe participation in such pages is anonymous, Kneeland reminds them that if anything happened to someone directly related to that page, law enforcement can find out who had participated even if it’s been deleted.
Bellingham school administrators were on hand to answer questions. “As administrators for the district, we try to work with our staff to make sure they understand what the new technologies are,” Keough Memorial Principal David Cutler told parents. He used the example of constantly changing social media platforms, which have recently shifted to include online gaming platforms that students have used to have negative interactions with each other.
Using reports to see what students are accessing and how often, schools are aware of what students are doing. “Our technology director monitors all our WiFi,” Superintendent Peter Marano assured parents. If something is concerning, they follow through with discussions and investigations. The school district has worked on investigations with local police as well as social media companies.
Kneeland finished by urging parents to tell their kids the “grandmother rule” (if you wouldn’t share it with your grandmother, don’t have it on your phone) and urging them to keep their standards high. Punishments for minors engaging in “sexting” can be severe, including charges of possession and dissemination of child pornography. “The D.A.’s office takes it case by case,” she said. “They know kids make dumb mistakes,” but the repercussions can be severe.
Her last words were to “tweet others as you want to be tweeted,” and she reminded parents to talk to their kids about their cyber lives. “We have to stay involved,” she said; “the best thing you can do is stay involved and stay educated. ”The district’s bullying policy can be found online at www.bellinghamk12.org
, and any questions can be referred to the individual school’s principal.