Cyber bullying and 'sexting' the focuses of presentation
By Jeff Himler
Published: Friday, April 10, 2009,
When the relatively new violation of "sexting" recently made headlines at two nearby Westmoreland County school districts, it drove home for guidance counselor Sheila Mendicino the need to arm her older students at Saltsburg Elementary School and their parents against the many hazards youngsters could encounter through the Internet and today's various means of electronic communication.
About 20 people, including parents, community leaders and a few children, came to the school Tuesday evening for a presentation on cyber bullying and Internet safety moderated by Mendicino and sponsored by the school's PTA. The program will be repeated next Wednesday morning for the school's sixth-graders.
Several of the adults in the audience agreed with Tpr. Jeanne Martin, a presenter from the state police barracks in Greensburg, that youngsters need to be made aware of the serious nature, and potentially serious consequences, of bad behavior on the Internet or using hand-held devices --...ranging from subtle bullying to "sexting," the transmission of sexually explicit images among minors using cell phones.
In the Westmoreland County territory they serve, state police at Greensburg "still aren't seeing a lot" of criminal cases resulting from cyber bullying, Martin said.
"We don't see a lot of it being reported to law enforcement, but it's out there, it's happening," she said.
"Maybe it's being rectified in-house in a school, or in a home between parents," she suggested.
Martin presented an informative slideshow on bullying that was prepared two years ago by a police officer in Pittsburgh's South Hills. It noted that many cases of cyber bullying go unreported.
Martin explained bullying consists of a series of repeated acts that are intentional, controlling and hurtful. It can take the form of physical confrontation -- more often seen when boys are involved -- or either emotional or social behavior.
Bullying is a learned behavior that can be picked up from others as early as age 2. It may lead to increased absenteeism and high school dropout rates.
Martin added that, like child abuse, bullying can trigger a vicious cycle, with an individual who was a victim as a youngster possibly growing up to bully a spouse or children.
The presentation noted that girls, more often than boys, are involved in more subtle forms of bullying: name calling, spreading rumors or deliberately excluding the victim from peer social circles.
Direct threats against a victim also may be involved.
According to a survey cited in Martin's presentation: 90 percent of middle school students reported having their feelings hurt online; 21 percent of eighth-graders reported being a victim of cyber bullying; 17 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys said they had bullied someone.
While digital online and wireless communication has become second nature to today's youth, "Parents are often clueless about the technology," Martin said. But they "have to keep up with them" to be able to monitor them and make sure they're not engaging in risky online behavior, she said.
Cyber bullying may be on the increase because of the relative ease involved and by the ability of the bully to avoid direct confrontation with her target. "It's oftentimes easier to do this through an electronic device than in the real world," Martin said.
With cyber bullying, comments about the victim also are easier to spread among others -- with the touch of a button or the click of a mouse.
The advent of online social networking sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook have only increased the opportunity for youngsters to engage in cyber bullying or, conversely, to become victims of bullying or of other serious offenses such as identity theft and sexual predation.
"Some of these sites are the first places predators look" for potential victims, Martin said, noting that chat functions associated with interactive online gaming sites also can be avenues for trouble.
If parents permit their children to use such sites, she suggested, they should be present to monitor the use and also should know the child's password for keeping tabs on his online activity.
Cell phone messages also should be monitored, she advised.
A disturbing Internet trend noted in the presentation is sites where young people express suicidal feelings and others may respond to encourage them to act on those feelings.
While Martin said such sites have not been involved in any cases investigated at the Greensburg barracks, the presentation cited online communications as a factor in the 2003 suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Vermont.
Bullying also was cited as a contributing factor in school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
Mendicino and several parents agreed that youngsters need to stop and think about the consequences to themselves and others before they initiate or perpetuate bad behavior online or via a cell phone.
While many bullying incidents don't become criminal cases, Martin indicated those that do could result in the perpetrator facing charges of harassment or terroristic threats.
"This is not a slap on the wrist," she noted. "These are misdemeanors or felonies."
"Just repeated, unwanted text messages are harassment, a misdemeanor offense," Martin pointed out. "It's repeated, unwanted behavior that doesn't really have a purpose."
Melissa Sullenberger, an intake officer with the Westmoreland County juvenile probation department, advised parents to take charge when a child is involved in such an incident: "The first thing you need to do is take the phone or computer from them."
She explained her department works with those ages 10-21 who have been charged with a criminal offense.
Sullenberger pointed out that an incidence of terroristic threats is graded as a first-degree misdemeanor. When her department is called in on such cases, she said, often "we will remove the child from the home and place them in detention until we find out if they're a risk to the community."
Of the 800 young people whose cases her department currently is handling, about 180 have been placed by court order in a setting such as a group or foster home or a drug and alcohol treatment facility, Sullenberger said.
In such instances, she noted, the parent's wages and Social Security and child support payments will be applied toward the placement fees, which typically range from $200 to $300 per day.
Sullenberger noted Westmoreland County has begun to offer in-home counseling services for the rest of the family while a juvenile offender is in placement and receiving his own counseling, but she noted funding for such services is in short supply.
She added that parents can privately seek counseling for a child they believe is involved in bullying or other misconduct.
Sexting is a newer offense that has come to the forefront with recent cases publicized in the Greensburg Salem and Southmoreland school districts.
Martin pointed out the Southmoreland incident, reported nearly a year after inappropriate images of a female juvenile were sent to numerous students' cell phones, highlights the compounding consequences of initial actions taken by a single cyber or cellular user.
"How many people do you think saw that in a year's time?" she asked.
Martin noted that each youth who receives such an image and then passes it along to a friend is equally subject to felony charges of electronically disseminating sexually explicit images of a minor.
"I don't think that occurs to a lot of kids" who may quickly pass along an illicit image they've been sent to a further circle of friends, said Michelle Jesko, a member of Saltsburg Borough Council. "They're not thinking its against the law, at that moment."
Questions and answers
Responding to questions from the audience, Sullenberger indicated that a criminal record a person obtains as a juvenile, even if punishment was limited to probation, will remain active for the remainder of the person's life unless a request is made, and granted by authorities, to have it expunged.
She acknowledged such a record can have a negative effect when the person applies to a college or for a job.
While acknowledging there have been bullying incidents in the past at Saltsburg Elementary, Mendicino indicated harmonious relations among students have prevailed recently. "This year has been a great year for us," she said, but she added she is concerned about "preparing our sixth-graders for going to the high school. I feel they're vulnerable."
Mendicino expressed hope that Martin's repeat presentation Wednesday about potential legal consequences of online harassment and illicit communications will hit home with Saltsburg's sixth-graders, reinforcing a bullying prevention campaign of posters and public-address announcements that urges all students to make responsible and respectful choices in their daily interactions.
"Think something through before you take an action," Mendicino advises students. "Put that pause in there, and always think about what you're doing."
She noted one teacher uses a giraffe image that challenges students to consider whether they "stick their neck out" for a peer who is being bullied.
Students are encouraged to "reflect at the end of the day on the choices they made," she added.
While Anne Long of New Alexandria RD said she believes the school's "bullying programs are making a difference," she noted she attended Tuesday's session to "see what to look for" in guarding against cyber bullying.
She said her two children, who are enrolled in the school's third and fifth grades, aren't yet involved in the cyber community, but she noted she has heard of other children who have been subject to bullying through cell phone communications.
She said the easy and widespread communication offered through cyberspace is "real scary. It's very easy to get to the kids without them knowing what's going on."
Dee Jeffers of Slickville said she similarly attended to get versed on the cyber hazards that could confront her son down the road. For now, she said, "He's not on the Internet; he just plays games on the computer." But, "He's 10, right around the corner from where he's going to want to be more involved."
Tuesday's program was not the first at the school to address cyber bullying or other Internet hazards.
A few years ago, local resident Ray Brannon presented an Internet safety program "Inspect Your Gadgets" at both Saltsburg's elementary and secondary schools.
A Bullying Prevention Committee has been active at the elementary school for at least nine years, while a Bully-Free Amazing Wonder Show recently was presented, along with a Bully-Free Schools Pledge, at the Saltsburg Middle/High School.
Martin said such programs bear repeating on a regular basis to make sure the message isn't lost on successive groups of students who move through the school.
She suggested that a common-sense, pro-active approach by parents, beginning early in their children's lives, is one of the most effective ways to prevent bullying: "It's the way we teach our kids to deal with other people."
Presenter Lisa Basinger of Greensburg's YMCA Tuesday encouraged parents to get their families involved in Y programs as a way of reinforcing ethics and positive values for their children. She noted that four different Y facilities are located within a 16-mile radius of the Saltsburg school, including sites in Indiana and Greensburg.
She said the Y offers programs for youths from pre-schoolers to teens, including before- and after-school activities, health and fitness and sports programs, aquatics, summer day camps and a camp counselor-in-training program.
Basinger presented a copy of "Proud Heritage," a 150th anniversary history of the YMCA, for placement in the elementary school's library.
Information on bullying and bullying prevention are available at: stopcyberbullying.org; 4girls.gov/bullying; and mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/publications/allpubs/SVP-0056.
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