|TC Central Social Worker Diane Burden
"Worthless." "Disgusted." "Hurt." "Harassed."
Those are the words four Traverse City Area Public Schools students used to describe how they felt after recent experiences with cyber bullies – individuals who use Internet or social media accounts to attack others.
Over the summer, two local Twitter feeds – @TCRumors and @TCGossipHurts – began posting defamatory comments about area high school students, particularly students of Traverse City West Senior High School. Posts mocked students by name for their appearance, made lewd comments about their dating partners and sexual behavior, and directed obscenities at users who tried to contact or challenge the anonymous feed administrators.
One victim of @TCGossipHurts, Caitlyn Keener*, was so upset by the attacks that she called the Traverse City Police Department to report the posts. "They said that kids had a choice whether or not to look at [the posts], so there was nothing they could do about it," Caitlyn says. "I realized that most adults don't take this kind of thing seriously. They look at it as something you can ignore, when in reality it is in your face."
Todd Neibauer, director of technology at TCAPS, acknowledges incidents of cyber-bullying are difficult to moderate. “Because of the nature of these accounts, we can't control them. If an account is anonymous, it usually takes a court order to find out who is behind it.” But, he adds, the schools can (and do) conduct investigations based on the content posted in the accounts, and discipline students who are found to be involved.
Cyber-bullying is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in local schools. According to Third Level Crisis Intervention Center, the number of surveyed Grand Traverse County high school youth who reported reading email or website messages containing threats to other students increased from 21 percent in 2008 to 23.2 percent in 2010. In 2008, 34.8 percent of surveyed youth said they read email or website messages spreading rumors about other students; that number jumped to 40.1 percent in 2010.
“Cyber-bullying is extremely damaging to students,” says Traverse City Central High School social worker Diane Burden. “It may not be something physical, like punches thrown in the hallway, but students can annihilate someone's reputation in a matter of seconds.”
Complicating matters for the district is TCAPS' One2World program, which provides netbook computers to every attending high school student. The laptops provide students with enhanced online learning opportunities but, as with any tool, Neinbauer says, “they can be used for good, or they can be used for bad.”
To help cut down on incidents of cyber-bullying, the schools require students to sign agreements to only use the computers for “appropriate” purposes, and block access to Facebook on campus. Twitter, however, is still accessible. Students who violate the agreement can lose their server privileges.
TCAPS executive director of human resources Chris Davis adds that while the schools have effective programs in place to address and discipline bullying – cyber and otherwise – if harassment is repetitive, aggressive or illegal, schools will involve local law enforcement as necessary.
Meanwhile, at Traverse City Central High School, Burden is helping oversee a program designed to stop bullying in its early stages. “Be the Solution” provides an anonymous hotline (231-714-4410) to which students can text in reports of bullying, including online or cyber-bullying. The texts are converted into emails sent to Burden, who can respond back by text. Since the program launched in May, Burden has handled approximately 20 cases through the hotline, the majority of which she says were related to cyber-bullying.
“It's important for the students to know they have an avenue to get help,” Burden says. “It's also important for aggressors to know they can be reported, and that we're watching. We take this issue very seriously.”
*Not her real name