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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Cyberbullies Beware

SARATOGA COUNTY - As schools prepare for year-end celebrations and graduations, the state of New York is taking a serious look into how they deal with the potentially fatal issue of cyberbullying.

 

A bill passed this week in both houses of the legislature is expected to be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. The bill legally defines cyberbullying as “the severe and repeated use by one or more students or school employees of a written, verbal or electronic form, or a physical act or gesture directed at a student that caused physical injury, emotional harm or damage to a student's property; placed the student in a reasonable fear of harm to himself/herself; creating a hostile environment at school; substantially disrupting the educational process or the orderly operation of a school.”

“With the explosion of social media, a comment online will be seen by virtually everyone in school in nearly an instant,” said New York State Assemblyman Tony Jordan. “The means of communication have changed and we need to try to keep up with it. You’re never going to cure everything with a piece of legislation, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Schools have been scheduling assemblies for years to deal with this social media problem, and the statistics are starting to show that while the number of reports of bullying in schools is decreasing, the numbers of reported cyber-abuse occurrences at home are rising. The problem isn’t going away, the front is just moving. Within the last five years a string of nation-wide teen suicides can be linked directly to cyberbullying.

Our area hasn’t escaped tragedies of this type. It was only two years ago that the South Glens Falls school district dealt with six deaths over the course of just one year, half of which were unexpected and possibly attributed to suicide. The situation prompted the school to address the issue of bullying by training counselors in suicide prevention, hosting a suicide awareness night and participating in a state-wide cyberbullying prevention program.

According to literature from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “it is not bullying alone that causes suicides, but it may put youth who are already vulnerable at an increased risk for self-harm.” The U.S. Department of Education agrees “self-harm and suicidal thinking are possible effects of student-on-student harassment.”

The bill also mandates the training of school staff and requires schools to assign an appointed official responsible for promptly addressing reported claims, develop prevention strategies, and take actions to prevent recurrences. It does not, however, make cyberbullying a crime.

Schools don’t have to wait for tragedies to occur or their state’s department of education to specify guidelines; they can initiate prevention by implementing a program like Rachel’s Challenge. Rachel Scott was the first victim of the 1999 Columbine shooting. Schuylerville and Greenwich central schools are already participating in the program. The Greenwich Friends of Rachel Club is sponsored by the Fort Miller Group. Participating students’ commit themselves to act kindly and work to change the culture of the school to one in which “no one is willing to stand by and let bullying happen.” Grades three through 12 signed a pledge to “look for the best in others, eliminating prejudice, choose positive influences, use kind words and practice simple acts of kindness.”

“There are groups out there that are doing great things to address the culture of bullying,” said Jordan. “The Rachel’s Challenge program at Schuylerville and Greenwich has introduced it into the elementary schools, too; it’s intended to help change the culture of the community to show it’s one of kindness and identify the real problem. Those are the types of efforts that go a long way toward curbing and reducing (cyberbullying),” said Jordan.

Before legislation takes effect and school programs are in place, there are measures parents can take at home.

“As parents we have to be in tune to the opportunities for risk that exist in the online world, how to mitigate those risks and be there to help kids,” said Jordan.

Local psychotherapist Meghan Lemery, LCSW-R, offered this advice to parents, “When a child is bullied they feel tremendous shame. Teens may be afraid to let their parents and teachers know what is going on because they are embarrassed. Make time to connect and check in with them daily. Ask them if anyone is giving them a hard time. Take action immediately to confront the bully and protect your teen. If necessary, enlist a therapist to help empower your teen to walk the halls with confidence and courage. Every teen needs to know their parents care and are in tune with what they are going through and have an advocate in their life who will keep them safe, emotionally and physically.”

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