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20 July 2009

Electronic bullying of students has real effect

Source: Georgann Yara

The tears shed by a schoolmate reminded McClintock High School sophomore Austin Arredondo that words can pack a punch, even when wielded by a faceless author whose pen is a keyboard and delivery service is the Internet.

Earlier this year, Austin, 15, said he heard classmates whispering about an unfounded rumor placed on a social media Web site. The rumor had made the rounds by the next day, when he saw the female subject of the gossip crying at school. Internet technology and an increasingly computer-savvy generation has fueled the popularity of sites such as MySpace and Facebook, not to mention increased use of older, more-traditional communication methods like text messaging and e-mail. Austin said he has never seen or been the target of online threats, but realizes how the tool could make intimidating others easier. "It's always those people who say stuff about other people behind their backs. I think it's easier. You don't have to look at them in the face. There is no immediate threat of getting punched or anything like there is if you were actually there," Austin said. And when it comes to bullying, computers and cellphones have become the near-perfect hiding place for teens who may not otherwise take the aggressive stance. While these threats tend to happen off school property and outside of the school day, the repercussions can affect classroom performance. This is when Southeast Valley educators like Samantha Heinrich. manager of prevention services for the Kyrene School District, step in. Heinrich said a drop in grades, reclusive behavior or any other noticeable changes will cause teachers to ask questions. "The school has no jurisdiction, but inevitably it does creep into the school day. There is no consequence for cyber-bullying, but if it's going on at school then school will intervene," she said. Heinrich said she has intervened in serious bullying cases involving elementary-school-aged children, many of which occur via text message. Some threats can be overtly aggressive and consist of written threats or even negative photos associated with the bully's target. Others are subtler, questioning why someone looks at another in a certain way or commands them to stop staring at them during lunch. Heinrich said reports of cyber threats have been on a consistent rise within the last two years, with perpetrators getting younger. The district has put on workshops that help parents monitor their child's Internet and phone usage and teach them the skills to detect whether their child is bullying or being bullied. Another trend shows that some children who were bullied or too shy to fight back find technology somewhat of a refuge, a place where they can inflict the emotional pain they have endured. Horizon Honors High School principal Nancy Emmons said the school offers students an advisory program on Internet safety that includes how hurtful messages can have a lasting impact and haunt both writer and recipient long after the send button is pressed. Marcos de Niza High School principal Frank Mirizio said it is common for parents and students to bring a copy of a threatening MySpace page or show a text message. Mirizio said administrators conduct thorough investigations into each claim. About 99 percent of treats are "typical" and cause for little concern beyond speaking with the parties involved. "It's typical name-calling because you stole my boyfriend type of issue. We investigate it like a serious problem, but we end up getting to the bottom of it and that's the kind of thing it usually is," Mirizio said. In the rare event a viable physical threat is made, the issue is brought to the school resource officer, who starts the legal investigation. Tempe police Juvenile Detective Brandon Banks said he had to get involved in a threat complaint last semester as the SRO at McClintock. Although the most drastic may involve threat to use a lethal weapon, Banks said a strong majority of youths will never go to that level or take steps to end a life. He said students come to his office in tears because someone posted a negative online blog about them. "Few want to get into a physical confrontation, that's why they're using those Web sites," Banks said. "Juveniles use it to bully where they may not otherwise have bullied. It certainly provides an outlet for their frustrations."

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