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Districts grapple with Web bullying

Schoolyard harassment goes high-tech, with insults hurled online and in text messages.

Nin-Hai Tseng
Sentinel Staff Writer

August 9, 2006

The typical bully used to torment unlucky victims out in the open -- in school hallways, for instance -- spitting out insults and disparaging remarks for anyone to hear and see.

But times have changed. Bullying has gone high-tech and anonymous, although it's just as humiliating.

The Internet and cell-phone text messages are the new mediums for "cyberbullies." They post nasty pictures or messages about others in blogs and on Web sites or exploit another person's online user name to spread rumors about others.

School officials throughout Central Florida have caught on.

When classes begin in Lake County on Thursday, school officials will introduce a cyberbullying policy that prohibits this behavior on school computers. Parents must sign a form confirming they have read the policy and discussed it with their children. Punishment could range from a phone call home to an out-of-school suspension, depending on the offense.

"It's obviously happening all over the country, and it could be happening here," said Lynn Jones, safety coordinator for Lake schools.

Lake, which passed the policy in June, joins districts in Brevard, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia in banning students from sending harassing or threatening messages while using school computers. The districts also use filters to block MySpace.com at school, but that doesn't stop bullies who can easily access the site at home.

Popular site has downside

MySpace, the popular social-networking site, has grown into a cyber hangout where teens can meet new people, stay in touch with friends, share music and post pictures. However, the site also has created a channel for mean-spirited comments, rumors and vengeful personal attacks.

"It's an age-old story," said Regina Klaers, spokeswoman for the Seminole County district. "People find new ways to be mean to each other."

Late last school year,
Umatilla High School student Jessica Machamer was one of several school girls targeted on a MySpace page.

Classmates told the 15-year-old that she and other classmates were featured on a page labeled "Emily Rugburn." The situation resembled the movie Mean Girls, in which the most popular girls create a so-called "burn book" and post mean messages next to yearbook pictures of schoolmates.

Jessica said she is a devoted Christian who spends most of her time in church and with her youth group. So it was no surprise when she looked up the page and found this next to her picture:

"Jessica, Satan's on the phone for you."

The soon-to-be-sophomore said she didn't let the message bother her too much, but other girls at school reacted angrily to their presence on the page.

"Nobody knew who it was, so everybody was accusing each other," Jessica said.

Jessica said Lake's new school policies are well-intentioned but wondered how well they will work. Tech-savvy students who log on at home can easily create Web sites and post messages on MySpace.

School officials acknowledge that enforcing cyberbullying policies could be difficult.

Nancy Wait, spokeswomen for Volusia County schools, said officials can't control what goes on outside school unless problems on the Internet carry over into the classroom.

"It's kind of the situation where the student gets into a fight with another student at home," Wait said. "If it's done within our jurisdiction, we have control over it."

Free speech at issue

The First Amendment protects much free speech and expression, adding another layer to a complicated issue.

Brandon Hensler, communications director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the lines blur, especially when school officials try to regulate what is written or created outside the schools. Criticisms are protected by law, but threats are not.

"There's a difference between someone saying, 'Hey, that orange shirt that so-and-so is wearing makes him look like a fool' versus 'I'm going to kill you,' " Hensler said.

This year, Polk County school officials have banned Internet mockery, insults or threats against teachers, administrators and staff. Bruce Tonjes, associate superintendent for school-based operations, cited one student who posted a message directed at a teacher. It read: "I'm going to get you."

"That could mean anything," Tonjes said, adding that teachers took the student aside and talked to him. The policy holds students responsible for posting false accusations assailing the reputation of a teacher or a staffer.

Recently, Florida lawmakers considered a "school safety" bill that required all school districts to document instances of bullying -- including cyberbullying -- and promote anti-bullying education.

It passed the House unanimously but wasn't voted on in the Senate. State Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who sponsored the bill, said she plans to refile it next year.

"Sometimes free speech goes beyond the First Amendment," said Bogdanoff, citing Jeff Johnston, a 15-year-old Lee County student who committed suicide last year after being taunted by a former classmate over the Internet.

"In order to have a quality learning environment, we must have a safe environment," she said.

Nancy Willard, director of the Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said the anonymity of the Internet has enabled cyberbullying to be much more blatant and extensive than the typical locker-room and hallway name-calling and shoving.

"Teens feel more free to communicate in a negative manner," Willard said. "They see themselves as invisible and don't get tangible feedback."

Kerianne Bowden, a 13-year-old from Eustis, has had to deal with bullying-type comments posted on her My Space page. Recently, someone posted a blunt comment about her head shot: "You're ugly."

"It hurt," the Liberty Christian Academy eighth-grader said.

Kerianne took the picture down and thought about trashing her entire page. But she didn't because it's a way to stay connected with the 154 friends linked to the page.

"All my friends have one," she said, "and it's a lot of fun."

Nin-Hai Tseng can be reached at nhtseng@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5919.


Copyright 2006, Orlando Sentinel