As Cyber Antics Grow, Bullies May Now Be Facing Consequences

By Larryse Brown, Tom Fehn and Brandon Chalkin

Rumors. Threats. Harassment. The school yard? No.

Online. Where the bullies roam free and the school yard never closes.

Acts of the newly coined “cyber bullying” has forced school and college officials, parents and courtrooms to begin determining just how responsible a student may be for repeated instigation on the web.

Many schools, Mercy included, haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how to handle cyber bullying. And how could they?

Cyber bullying is when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. There has to be a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. Once adults become involved, the charge becomes cyber-harassment or cyber stalking. Regardless of the name, the dependence of young adults on technology has caused alternate forms of harassment.

Four in 10 teenagers report that they have experienced some form of cyber-bullying, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the National Crime Prevention Council. It is more common among females than males, and most prevalent between 15- and 16-year-olds, according to the study.

Chat rooms, social networking web sites, e-mail and instant message systems are the most common arenas for the behavior.

Cyber bullying leapt into the headlines after 18 year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi took his life after his roommates filmed and then broadcast him kissing an older man in his dorm room. On Sept. 22, he leapt off the George Washington Bridge and took his life. Both students have been charged with invasion of privacy, which could see them in jail for up to five years each.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, although 44 states have bullying statutes, fewer than half offer guidance about whether schools may intervene in bullying involving “electronic communication,” which almost always occurs outside of school and most severely on weekends, when teens and young adults have more free time to socialize online.

A few states say that school conduct codes must explicitly prohibit off-campus cyber bullying; others imply it; still others explicitly exclude it. Some states say that local districts should develop cyber bullying prevention programs, but the states have not yet addressed the question of discipline.

Even judges don’t know what to do, as they wrestle with new questions about protections on student speech and school searches. Can a student be suspended for posting a video on YouTube that cruelly demeans another student? Can a principal search a cell phone, much like a locker or a backpack? It’s unclear. These issues have begun their slow climb through state and federal courts, but so far, rulings have been contradictory, and much is still to be determined.

The first attempt made at putting a law in the United States against cyber bullying was in California in August of 2008. The California state legislature passed one of the first laws in the country to deal directly with cyber bullying. The legislation, (assembly bill 86 2008) gives school administrators the authority to discipline students for bullying others offline or online. The bill passed and the law took effect on January 1, 2009.

Prior to the bill, principals could address bullying that takes place in four circumstances: on school grounds, while students are going to or coming from school, during lunch period (off campus applies), and at off-campus school-sponsored events, including the travel time to and from that event.

That is true no longer, as now bulling “off campus” can legally be reprimanded by school systems. Other states are slowly implementing similar laws.

College campuses and private institutions become a little bit more tricky. Most schools are racing to enact policies that will legally allow them to take action against students harassing others in online forums. Others are not active until they are forced into the matter.

Eric Potts of the Plainsboro Police Department spoke to Mercer Country College Students last week and told them that college students acting in these types of actions can and will be prosecuted, according to the Bergen Record.

What you do at this age will affect you for the rest of your life,” said Potts. “And don’t think that sitting behind your computer you are anonymous. You can be found.”

Courts are in the midst of determining of someone can be “bullied to death” by an aggressor. A bully’s final intentions rarely is that, say most experts, but Newsweek’s story on cyber bullying in October said that a study claimed that nearly 60 percent of bullies would be found guilty of a crime by age 24. Yet Dan Olweus, a bullying expert, told Newsweek that bullying is not more prevalent or damaging than it was 50 years ago, and has actually improved in the last decade.

Yet cyber bullying is different, say the experts, as it is more visual, more apparent to others, and more far reaching as students are no longer just bullied within school hours.

Some are not even aware that they are being slandered about, as websites like allow students to post anonymously about professors, RAs and fellow teachers. Many schools have their own individual pages (No, Mercy College does not have one.)

But other Westchester County schools do. Some questions asked were “Who was your hottest hookup?” and “Who has the biggest boobs on campus?”

Others don’t ask questions. They just flat out make allegations and statements. “(Name) is the biggest snitch on campus” or “(Name) is bad in bed.”

Another spoke about how a certain sorority is not-selective on campus. “That is how (Name) got in. She was chosen in the eenie meenie minie moe. She’s such trash. I saw her dumpster diving for her clothing the other day.”

All posts are anonymous, and the website states that no post will be considered to be taken down without a formal request.

And while high school and college students race to find each other’s profiles after a long night at the bar or a party, it seems that it is starting much younger.

Cyber bullying is seen most in teenagers from grades 5-12. In a Cox Communications survey in 2009, 13-18 year olds were asked how often they had been involved in cyber bullying. 15 percent said they had been victims online and 10 percent said they were victims from cell phones. A survey of middle school students found that 9 percent had been cyber bullied in the last 30 days, and 17 percent had been cyber bullied during their lifetimes.

As the statistics continue to rise, parents of young teenagers are becoming nervous as to how they will protect their children from becoming victims.

“New things keep coming out each day like Facebook and Twitter. I have no idea how to use them but all three of my children do. How am I supposed to protect them without knowing how to use the tools?” wonders Robin Arnone, mother of three young boys in Croton-on-Hudson.

Her husband Jon told the Impact he has put parental restrictions on the internet use for his children, but he is aware that there are several different ways to bypass those boundaries and is not confident that they will protect his children from exposure.

“If identity theft is such a big problem that stemmed from the internet and can’t be controlled, how am I supposed to feel about the security that Facebook supplies to my children?” says Jon Arnone.

And sometimes to story of girl meets boy becomes girl meets boy who has a boyfriend and now it’s all over the internet.

Imagine this. There’s an attractive 16 year old girl who is a sophomore in high school with the classic high school crush on the popular senior. She decides to crash a party with her friends because she knows he’ll be there. She is introduced to him; they talk for a while and become friends in a couple of hours. They flirt for a good portion of the night, and she reluctantly partakes in a juvenile game of “spin the bottle,” in which as fate would have it, he kisses her. At end of the night he offers to drive her home and she accepts. It wasn’t until she gets home when a friend calls letting her know he has gotten back together with his on and off girlfriend of three years.

The very next day, before she even got a chance to confront him, before she even realized anything was wrong, there were messages from “friends” piled on her Facebook page covered in profanities and racial slurs about how much of a “slut” she is for the world to see. Girls she used to know as acquaintances were sliding degrading messages in her locker. Weeks later, instead of waiting for the next high school scandal to make gossip headlines she was mercilessly bullied, words written anonymously via AOL Instant Messenger about her “transgressions,” and it wasn’t long until she found herself staying nights at friend’s houses or finally in a police station afraid and intimidated, caught in a hell that her friends, her parents, not even the police could get her out of.

Christina Everett, now 18, relives the memories that she calls “dark” and “depressing “ of how she was the target of cyber bullying at her Manhattan high school.

“Rumors were flying around school, and the next thing I knew the whole school thought I was having sex with him. I felt like- it was like I didn’t have a voice no matter how loud I was screaming,” she said.

Everett is no stranger to bullying, as she claims she’s dealt with it most of her life. She recalls the time cyber bullying got off the internet and showed up at her

front door, in the form of a 17 year old boy.

Set up by a friend to open the door, the male got in her face and threatened her, saying, “Stay your fat (expletive) away from Derek. He’s not your man, you desperate (expletive).” The “friend” laughed in the corner.

After that incident, Everett ex-communicated herself from the internet completely along with the friend. She temporarily shut down her Facebook page, her Twitter account that use to give her assailants easy access to where she was and what she doing her AIM , her BBM, she even closed down her My Space she hadn’t used in 5 years.

“People from my church were calling me asking me who was writing these things on my page. I had to keep making up lies that they were jokes from my crazy friends”.

Crazy wasn’t that far off. This story, that began with a game of spin the bottle in the back of somebody’s basement, ended in a restraining order, fear and embarrassment, bruises that would fade and memories that wouldn’t. Everett, who may still hold her head down at the thought that she had to have her mom waiting for her every day after school for fear of getting jumped, has over time developed into a more mature mindset since the year it happened. Looking back on it now, she thinks most of those malicious words that were typed over the internet weren’t because the internet is and continues to be the most convenient form of communication.

“Some people get off on people’s pain, especially when they don’t have to directly own up to it,” she blurts out on being a victim of cyber bullying. “It’s easy for someone to jump on the bandwagon of other people’s opinions of you and hide behind a monitor to do it. Then they get all the benefits of feeling better because they put you down without any of the guilt of seeing your face or watching you cry.”

Everett herself begins to tear up as she admits to suffering from self-esteem issues that could have triggered a different reaction if she hadn’t been raised a certain way. “I literally don’t know what I did to deserve all that, but if I was a different girl and didn’t know who God was this could’ve driven me to do something really stupid.”

Girls get the brunt of it. According to research webpage Cyber United States, adolescent girls are significantly more likely to experience cyber bullying in their lifetimes (25.8 percent versus 16 percent). The type of cyber bullying tends to differ by gender; girls are more likely to spread rumors while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures or videos.

While according to statistics the average high school girls experience may depict details reminiscent of the popular comedic movie “Mean Girls,” when transferred into reality it isn’t funny at all. According to statistics, adolescent girls are the victims of, or partake in, cyber bullying each year more than men. This could be just a side-effect of an advancing technology literate generation that caused the good old fashioned high school hall way show down broken up by the presence of the principle to be replaced with cruel words and relentless teasing released into cyber space stopped by the police.

Everett doesn’t see the trend slowing down because the internet allows bullies to create rumors that snowball out of control due to the vast viewing power.

“They can attack you and verbally insult you in every way possible. Whether what they say is outrageous or believable, people don’t care. You can put a question mark in the place of name and the rumor will still spread.”