It’s not your father’s bully anymore.
Instead of the 6-foot-tall, slimy loser pushing the nerdy kid with glasses and braces into a locker, your child’s bully today may be a 92-pound beauty with polished fingernails who types nasty innuendos on her smartphone and posts ruinous rumors in the cybersphere.
And while schools are used to dealing with kids’ getting into trouble, now they must address electronic harassment and bullying, including events that occur off school grounds when school is not in session.
Principals say they have been looking into issues resulting from cellphones and posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media for some time, because their effect often spills over into school.
“Often Monday morning is the cleanup and the aftermath of what went down in cyberworld over the weekend,” said Lisa Krueger, assistant superintendent for curriculum and pupil services for Orchard Park Central Schools.
Administrators talk to the students and contact parents, ask them to remove the offending posts and educate them about appropriate uses.
And under new state legislation, they also will have the authority to follow through with discipline for harassment or intimidation that can interfere with a child’s education.
“Now we’ll be giving school consequences for behavior that happens off campus,” said Williamsville South Principal Keith Boardman.
That could include anything from a stern warning to counseling to suspension, depending on the offense.
It’s a natural progression for dealing with harassment and bullying in the 21st century.
“The bullying doesn’t just take place on the school grounds and school bus anymore,” Krueger said.
New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed into law in 2010, was amended July 1 to add cyberbullying via any form of electronic communication as a form of harassment covered under the law. The amendment also covers a cyberthreat, intimidation or abuse that “occurs off school property that creates or would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment.”
The law requires all school employees who witness or hear of bullying or discrimination to report it to a designated administrator or staff member. The school must take prompt action to end the activity and eliminate the hostile environment, as well as contact police if it is believed the activity rises to the level of criminal conduct.
“Everyone should feel comfortable and secure at school,” said Iroquois Superintendent Douglas Scofield.
His schools work with the individual students and families to find the root cause of the problem, he said. The district works to change the culture so everyone knows what is inappropriate behavior. Complaints investigated by Iroquois have run the gamut from simple name-calling to threats, he said.
“They haven’t developed the understanding of how hurtful words can be,” Scofield said of students. “Sometimes they use words very inappropriately.”
But instead of words being uttered quickly in a hallway, or on a bus with a limited audience, today’s bullies post their words – as well as pictures and videos – on Internet sites that hundreds or even thousands can follow, and the comments can be there forever.
“When you go on Facebook and you have 2,000 friends and you post an insult, it’s the equivalent of posting it on a bulletin board at school,” said Boardman.
He spends time talking to Williamsville South students about their digital footprint.
“In five years, if I was able to access some of your posts, would you be embarrassed by that?” Boardman asks freshmen.
Some parents and grandparents believe dealing with bullying is a part of growing up, but the effects of bullying can last for years.
“What we used to believe is just kids being kids, is no longer OK because we see the lasting effect it has,” said Colleen Kaney, director of pupil services at Hamburg Central Schools.
According to the federal StopBullying.gov website, students who are bullied may have a higher risk of depression and anxiety that can follow them into adulthood. They also may be more likely to miss or drop out of school, and in 12 of 15 school shootings in the 1990s, the shooters had been bullied.
Schools already have curriculum and codes of conduct that address bullying, and they have been training staff. Parents will notice school districts placing their revised codes of conduct with updates based on the state law amendments on their websites, and listing the names of coordinators who are trained to take and handle complaints of harassment or intimidation based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation or gender.
Districts have broad programs that include age-appropriate material.
Schools have investigated reports of bullying and harassment in every grade.
“Sometimes it’s just they don’t know how to act in a social situation,” Kaney said, adding that most reports about 5- and 6-year-olds are unfounded. “It’s difficult sometimes – are they really being hurtful and purposeful?”
Cyberbullying complaints have been made against students as young as in the third or fourth grade, as soon as children start using websites, chat rooms and cellphones.
Reports come from students and parents to teachers and staff members through conversations, phone calls and emails. Some students take advantage of “bully boxes,” secure boxes where notes about incidents can be placed. Some districts, such as Hamburg, also take complaints anonymously on their websites. Users are reminded that filing a false report is against the law.
“Every one that comes to us, we investigate,” Kaney said.
A complaint often starts as a rumor, and the first step is finding out what is going on and whether it rises to the level of true harassment, Krueger said.
The potential for exposure is 24/7 because of changes in technology, Scofield said, but students should not have to avoid social media just to avoid exposing themselves to cyberbullying.
“In school, when we were children, you would find other places to sit to not expose yourself,” he said. “It’s not acceptable that you have to limit your exposure so you’re not a victim.”