Examining the crossroads of bullying and social media
by Natalie Hormilla
“I wish that I could put a scrambler over my building that would not allow any airwaves to come in and out during the day,” said Lake Region Union High School Principal Andre Messier.
He made that comment during a phone interview Monday on the topic of cyber bullying.
Sometimes cyber bullying happens only online — as in a “comments fight,” or nasty e-mails — and sometimes there’s an instance of a real incident continuing to live online.
Such was the case recently when an argument between students at the Orleans Elementary School was posted online.
The incident occurred while students were on the way home from school and involved a group of middle schoolers and at least one younger student.
What most agree was basically an argument between kids generated much attention because videos of it were posted online, and it appeared to some that a young black girl was targeted by an older white boy.
Orleans Elementary School Principal Kim Hastings conducted an investigation into the argument, which took place off school grounds last month, she said in a phone interview Monday.
“It was a just a verbal fight amongst middle school kids,” Ms. Hastings said. “There were inappropriate things said all around by the kids, and what happens is that they all got mad.”
Social media has exacerbated bullying, Mr. Messier said.
He has been an educator for 22 years, so he’s been on the front line of handling social media issues with students as they have become more prevalent and more complex.
“Back in our day, it was passing notes and throwing them in people’s lockers…now everything is so immediate and so much out into the world,” Mr. Messier said. “You know, you post something and it’s not just that one person you’ve written this note to, it’s public.”
Because of the public nature of the Orleans incident, many people learned about the fight, which some did consider to be a case of bullying.
At least one of the students recorded two videos of the incident and posted them on Facebook. Then an account of the story appeared in a local newspaper.
“People misunderstood the video, including the newspaper,” said Ms. Hastings. “There are a lot of educational points to this. There are a whole lot of directions that we as a school could go.”
At least one of the students involved in the incident was younger than middle school age, but was not a target of bullying, Ms. Hastings said.
“She was just being walked home by one of the older kids. It doesn’t make it appropriate,” Ms. Hastings said. “It was probably scary for her, but they weren’t yelling at her, because the yelling was all around.”
The younger student is in second grade, Ms. Hastings said. All the others were in middle school.
“The interviews are all done,” Ms. Hastings said. “We’ve had to kind of compare notes, but no younger student was targeted.”
“It definitely is a much different picture than what was portrayed, and unfortunately that’s where it’s sticky because I’m not allowed to talk about certain things,” she said. “I certainly can’t talk about details confidentiality wise, and I wouldn’t want to. What I care most about is helping all the students involved move forward, and it’s a life lesson. We get those every day just about.”
Orleans school board member Kristin Atwood saw the videos on October 28.
“There were a lot of shares, and then each share would have a handful of comments,” Ms. Atwood said in a phone interview.
Ms. Atwood said she learned about one of the videos after a Facebook friend of hers, Randi Morse of Coventry, shared it with her online.
Ms. Morse, a former Orleans student, said she had watched the videos several times, and provided the Chronicle with an account of them, which have since been removed from the Internet.
“It was basically him walking behind a group of girls,” she said, in reference to the student believed to have recorded the incident. “One was a smaller black girl, and there was also an older girl walking with her.”
Although other kids were seen in the video, Ms. Morse said the two girls were the main focus of the kid who was videotaping.
The girls were hard to hear in the video, Ms. Morse said. But she could hear the student recording the fight, and he was basically taunting them, she said. The video concluded with the girls running away.
“The second video made me more upset,” Ms. Morse said.
That video was taken at the footbridge near the school. It begins with the girls accusing the videographer of walking a different way home than usual, and ends with him threatening at least one of the girls with physical harm, Ms. Morse said.
The videos, once posted online, contained descriptions. The description of the second video, Ms. Morse said, was something like “and it’s not because she’s black.”
She believes that makes it obvious that the student was targeting the younger girl, who Ms. Morse said was the only black person in the video.
Whatever the case may be — whether a younger student was targeted or simply present — Ms. Hastings wants to be proactive about the educational points of such a conflict.
“We’ve met with kids, we’ve checked in with them,” she said. “School has gone on as normal.”
This is one of two such investigations that Ms. Hastings has conducted as principal at the Orleans school. She is now in her third year in the position.
Another issue involving social media spawned an ongoing conversation between Ms. Hastings and students involving the “like” button on Facebook. The school brought in guest speakers to talk to students as a result of that incident.
“I just want to make kids feel safe, above all else, whether it’s when they leave my school or they’re in school, they need to feel safe,” she said. “Even if they’re scared of something, we have actions we can take. They may not be punitive in nature, but educational.”
Ms. Hastings’ investigation was overseen by Orleans Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Stephen Urgenson.
“The investigation is conducted in the schools and I consult with the principals,” Mr. Urgenson said. “It’s critical to have an investigation, because you don’t know if it’s bullying or harassment, or maybe hazing.”
It’s also important to keep documentation for any potential future use, he said.
Mr. Urgenson has been an educator since 1966 and has had a close-up view of the changes in student life, before and after social media.
“It’s changed things dramatically, but if you ask someone my age or from my generation, we don’t really appreciate the full extent that it’s influencing behavior,” he said. “What it does is that it forces educators to go into an area that’s really undefined in terms of what responsibilities are.
“Years ago, what happened outside of school happened outside of school, and what happened inside happened inside,” he said. “With the advent of social media, in the last ten years, now the schools are required to deal with incidents that have happened outside of school….
“But if the repercussions are inside of school, then we’re responsible to some extent.”
Mr. Urgenson pointed out that free speech is a part of the equation when dealing with what kids say online.
“Is it appropriate for them to happen under free speech? And that gets complicated, so it needs to go case by case.”
These types of cases sometimes go to appellate courts, and rulings vary depending on which part of the country they happen in, he said.
“In this area, they have been more inclined to say that the schools have some responsibility,” Mr. Urgenson said.
“Children’s attitudes, young men’s and women’s attitudes, have changed over the years, in the sense that the concept of privacy is different than ours.”
For any 12- or 13-year-old, Facebook has been around pretty much all their lives, he said.
What happens on Facebook represents what’s happening in society, Mr. Urgenson said.
“If you look at shows on television now, the large majority of them are these reality shows, where people want to express themselves, and sometimes they express the intimate details of their lives that someone from my generation, or even just a few years younger than me, would be very uncomfortable doing,” he said.
He also talked about the effects of social media on kids’ social and communication skills.
“The concern I’ve heard expressed from older people is that they can communicate electronically, but how about the face to face? People say you go to a bus stop and all the kids are on their iPads. Or you go to a restaurant, and everyone in the family is on the phone.”
For all its effects, social media does not make kids meaner, he said.
“I think kids are kids, but they have a particular vehicle that certain children, if they’re so inclined, can take advantage of. I think, by and large, kids are still kids.”
Mr. Urgenson touched upon another component to the recent incident in Orleans.
“It’s my understanding that what exacerbated the situation is that not only students were involved, but parents. You find that with Facebook.”
Ms. Hastings said that it wasn’t necessarily parents who were involved in the Facebook posting, but adults.
“My understanding is that a lot of adults commented,” she said. “I’m sorry they were making those comments.”
She added that she did not spend much time examining the Facebook posting itself. She learned of the video after a parent came in to the school to talk to her about it.
“The sharing of the video was really kind of incendiary and the adults’ comments were often promoting violence against the student who’s accused of bullying,” said Ms. Atwood, who is one of three school board members.
“Basically, all of the adults turned into bullies themselves in the comments,” she said. “That’s something we need to be very aware of. Bullying the bully doesn’t solve the problem. If adults in our community think this behavior is okay of them and not the bullies, that’s an unacceptable double standard.”
“The majority of the comments that caused me concern were from people outside of the community, who are not parents at the school and who don’t even live in Orleans,” Ms. Atwood said.
She did leave a comment herself. She invited community members to the next school board meeting to talk about problems like bullying.
The next Orleans school board meeting is on Thursday, November 21.
Ms. Hastings said that Orleans students, like students at most schools these days, learn about what is and isn’t appropriate on the Internet.
“We talk a lot about Internet safety, and this is a reminder to us that once is never enough,” Ms. Hastings said. “At any particular time that they’re hearing it, they may take a piece of it but they may not remember the whole thing. And they may need to hear it again and again. What a fifth grader may hear is different from what an eighth grader may hear.”
Some middle school students from Orleans will attend the Vermont Youth Congress in Montpelier later this week, she said. That event is organized by the Agency of Education and the Anti-defamation League. A flyer for it reads, “Imagine a World Without Hate.”
“We had already arranged this, so I hate to say perfect timing,” Ms. Hastings said.
The students will attend workshops on a variety of topics, including bullying, cyber bullying, and Internet safety.
The school will also try to combat bullying with grant money from the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC). The money will go toward organizing parent nights, at least one of which will focus on kids and the Internet.
“I anticipate a survey so we find out what parents most want to know,” about Internet safety, Ms. Hastings said. Topics could include responsibility on the Internet, or even just how to use Facebook settings.
“A parent may want to put some parental controls on and not know how,” she said.
Although the recent incident that ended up on Facebook happened off school grounds, the school was still obligated to be proactive, Ms. Hasting said.
“If you read the policies, it used to be that the policies said ‘within school,’ and now they say ‘if they have an impact on school.’ And so you have to investigate long enough to find out where the connection with school is,” she said.
Social media is a crucial part of the kids’ guidance education, said Orleans Elementary School Counselor Claire Greene.
“It has to be. Basically, netiquette is its own unit, and cyber bullying is its own unit within that,” she said. “It’s an entirely different frontier. It really needs that specialized attention.”
Ms. Greene teaches “netiquette” as part of her guidance class, which she teaches to all grades once per week.
Those units on social media teach what is and isn’t appropriate to post online.
“We teach, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t put it online,” Ms. Greene said.
Dealing with cyber bullying can be tricky, she said.
“This is where it gets murky,” she said. “The general rule is that if it impacts a student’s ability to be in school, that is when a school may step in, or have to step in, because of the wording of the law.”
Students should understand what constitutes bullying, Ms. Greene said, because they each receive a copy of the Orleans Elementary School Handbook at the beginning of the school year.
According to the handbook, bullying is defined as:
“Any overt act or combination of acts directed against a student by another student or group of students and which:
1. Is repeated over time
2. Is intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate the student; and
3. Occurs during the school day on school property, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity.
4. Cyberbullying occurs over the Internet and will fall into the responsibility of the school if it has an adverse effect on the education of any students.”
Other terms alongside “bullying,” which are defined under the handbook section called “bullying and harassment,” are violence, intimidation, and aggression.
When there’s an allegation of bullying, Ms. Greene said that her role is to support all the students involved.
“Happy kids don’t usually bully, so we try to give everybody support.”
That support could include one-to-one anger management, work on social skills to get at the root of a behavioral problem, and making sure all kids involved know they have a safe space they can go to.
“There are many wonderful safe spaces in the school,” she said. “If you need to check in, if you need a few minutes, that’s what the safe spaces are for — emotional support for the aftermath.”
Ms. Greene talked about the burden that comes with social media.
“I absolutely have not and would not hesitate to say that there’s a huge amount of responsibility with Facebook,” she said. “Some of these sites aren’t intended for kids of a certain age. It’s not inherently negative or positive, it’s neutral. It’s all about the way that it’s utilized.”
Courtney Close, the school counselor at Irasburg Village School, said that staff deals with bullying on some level every day.
Ms. Close declined to be interviewed by phone. She answered questions via e-mail, because, she said, bullying can be a hot button topic and she didn’t want her words to be potentially twisted.
Asked how social media plays into bullying, she wrote, “Social media is a dominating bullying tool. It provides just the right zone of anonymity that bullying thrives in.”
Irasburg students also have weekly classes with the school counselor, and students sometimes see presentations by groups like Technicol, Umbrella, and the State Police, she said.
Irasburg students also participated in the STOMP Out Bullying World Day of Bullying Prevention on October 7, by all wearing blue shirts. That event was organized by the school nurse, said Irasburg Village School Principal Paul Simmons.
One-time events are usually not very effective, said Mr. Simmons. That’s why the Irasburg school tries to integrate anti-bullying into the guidance curriculum.
That sentiment was shared by Mr. Messier at Lake Region. He said the topic came up at a meeting he attended Friday, where some shared details about a state bullying task force meeting with students.
“The message they were hearing from the kids is that the canned programs don’t work. We don’t listen to the adults, the adults don’t listen to us.”
He said people spoke about how much bullying there is in society among adults.
“I see so much bullying and intimidating behavior by adults, you know,” Mr. Messier said. “Watch TV, listen to talk shows, talk radio, whatever, people seem to be so much less civil. Even watching last week when there were some Senate hearings on all the stuff with the health care, and we had U.S. senators that quite frankly I thought were bullying.”
“It was almost like a power trip. I see so much in our world, and I think that’s what our kids are constantly exposed to. They don’t really know the difference.”
Fear of retribution keeps educators from being informed, Mr. Messier said.
“There is, I think, at times, a reluctance to come forward and say something…we want the kids to be able to come in and trust us,” he said. “So as much as I may want to at times run out of there and find the offending person and deal with them, a lot of times we leave it up to the student that’s been in the office, or the parents, and say, okay, unless your child is in imminent danger, I want them to feel empowered.”
Lake Region doesn’t do many educational programs on bullying, aside from the occasional speaker, because the kids say they don’t work, Mr. Messier said.
“Especially when you get to the high school age students, that becomes more difficult.”
He expressed concern about how freely people post negative things online.
“And sometimes it’s parents, sometimes the adults are worse than the kids.”
Principal Messier said he avoids social media, and expressed discontent that what happens online continues in his school.
“Sometimes things that happen on Facebook come back to school…. They put more and more responsibility and onus on us as a school, and I’m not too tickled about that. It’s like, now I’m supposed to control this world, too.”
He has talked to some students about Internet posts that have come to his attention.
“I’ve talked to some kids before, and said, listen, what do you think about this post? And you know, sometimes they’ve gone on and deleted it, and said, I was so angry. And I think that’s one of the biggest issues. People type and push send before they even think,” he said. “And that’s where it becomes very dangerous.”
“In today’s world, with technology, employers, colleges — they use the technology to find out about you,” Mr. Messier said. “And years down the road, maybe you had posted something whether it’s pictures or whatever, and it comes back to haunt you. Like, wow, I was just a foolish 16-year-old, and it’s there.
“And now you’re 26, and you’re trying to get a job, or you’ve got a spouse or an infant, and all of a sudden there’s this stuff out there about you. And who knows what it will be like in ten years. I shudder to think.”
contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]