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Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2008

Bullies find new territory in cyberspace

staff writer

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Bullying doesn’t stop with the lunch-money stealers in the cafeteria, or the mean girls at recess.

Bulllies can follow students home through text messages, cellphone calls and messages on the family computers. It’s called cyber bullying.

Every once in awhile, Adam May, an Olathe North High School student said he’s seen it happen.

“I know some people talk or can be mean to each other on there,” May said. “I think most of the time people know when to stop.”

But he has seen it go too far, to the point of hurting someone. He’s seen students post embarassing photographs of a student on the Internet, or groups of students poking fun online at groups of students from other schools.

May has had his own social-networking Web site since he was in junior high school.

“Pretty much anyone” who has the Internet has Facebook or Myspace, he said.

“I don’t know why people do that– it’s kinda a dumb move,” May said. “They’re just asking for trouble. It’s something that happens, but you can stop it.”

This year, the state of Kansas began requiring schools to formulate policies to prevent students from using the Internet as a means of hurting someone else.

Laws like this are popping up across the country, some in response to incidents that led to student harm.

Missouri passed a law this spring after the suicide of a Missouri teenager who was harassed online. Cyber harassment done by anyone is illegal in Missouri.

For years, the Olathe school district has been “ahead of the curve,” when it comes to policies and procedures related to cyber bullies, said Heather Schoonover, safe and drug free schools facilitator.

In the district, such harassment may be dealt with by teachers, counselors or law enforcement depending on the situation, Aaron Faimon, school resource officer, said.

But the most important aspect in the district, Schoonover said is to promote overall cyber safety. For more than two years, there has been curriculum to adress cyber safety, cyber bullies and cyber integrity (the program is often called CO3). All teachers and counselors address cyber crimes and safety, Schoonover said.

“We teach that it is important to know the assets of technology along with how to be safe when online,” she said.

From Kindergarten to 12th grade, students are taught to not post anything online they wouldn’t say face to face and not give out their passwords. They are taught to think before they post anything online, Schoonover said.

What some students don’t realize is that if harassment occurs, even if it is deleted, it doesn’t go away, said Faimon.

As part of his job, he regularly observes public information students put on their social-networking sites.

“Usually what we see are more comments– somebody who was a friend yesterday who states something to embarrass or upset someone,” Faimon said. “We teach students about the fact that even if they post something and regret it later, it doesn’t change the fact it was there. When you are in front of the computer you can’t see the effect you have on another person and that’s where it can be a bigger problem.”

Sites like the “Internet Archive: Wayback Machine” keep records of Web sites that no longer exist. Because of these Web sites, information will exist in cyberspace long after the user deletes it, so it is even more important that students think of long-term reactions to what they post online, said Donna Roper, education technology coordinator for the district.

Even more important because it is common for colleges and employers to search such resources for background information on a potential student or employee, she said.

“I have a Web site I started in 1995 and I can go back and see what the page looked like at that time,” Roper said. “Even if you think it has gone away it can still be there.”

In classroom sessions, Faimon has told students to not respond to a post if harassed. If they have been harassed, they have the right to save the evidence and to tell a trusted adult, he said.

“We want students to know they can come to us for help if there is something that could be damaging,” Faimon said.

Faimon also tells students that even if it’s boring, to read the safety features of the Web sites they use — to know what information is being sent out.

This is why May checks his Facebook once or twice a day.

“I know how to control what is on there, and I don’t put stuff on there that could get me in trouble,” May said.

The C03 team continues to visit parent groups, churches and schools to talk about cyber safety and integrity. There continues to be enough interest in the topic that CO3 has appointments scheduled going into the next two years, Schoonover said.

“We try to give parents information so they can be one step ahead of students as far as knowledge,” Schoonover said. “It’s crucial you talk to your children — if you don’t someone else will.”

As a parent of three students in the Olathe district, Cheryl Crosser said she learned some information about cyber safety and cyber bullies from a session at her son’s school.

Two of her children use social networking sites. Used appropriately, the social networking sites can be a positive experience, she said.

“Their lives are so consumed by schedules I don’t think it leaves time for socializing, so it’s exciting when you can get on facebook and keep in touch,” Crosser said. “It can be a great way to get to know each other.”

But with one child in elementary school, one in junior high school and one in high school she has different restrictions for each, she said.

The family computer is in the kitchen– a high traffic area. She makes use of parental controls on the computer. She sets time limits for computer use, she said. Crosser also regularly talks to her children about how they use the Internet.

“What they’re doing and how they’re talking are the biggest for me,” Crosser said. “It’s so easy to write something you can’t take back. I strongly urge them to not write something they wouldn’t want me or someone else’s parents to see.”

The main thing Schoonover encourages parents to do is talk to their children. While students may be on Facebook now, technology tends to move in trends, she said. For example, a blogging site called Xanga used to be popular. Now Facebook and MySpace are popular. The next trend may be virtual worlds, online communities, she said.

“Because technology changes so rapidly, we need to be lifelong learners,” Schoonover said. “It is crucial you talk to your children about this. If you don’t, someone else will.

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