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Expert urges cyberbullying policies

Don Davis, Minn. State Capitol Bureau
Published Saturday, August 15, 2009

BROOLYN PARK, Minn. – Minnesota schools should learn from the suicide of a St. Louis teen-ager and more than a dozen others that cyberbullying is serious business, according to an expert on the subject.

School leaders need to act now to prevent cyberbullying, Parry Aftab told those at the Minnesota School Board Association's annual meeting Friday. She related the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who thought she was communicating via the Facebook Internet site with a 16-year-old boy.

The "boy" wrote to Meier: "The world would be better off without you."

The girl responded: "You're a boy worth dying for." Then she hanged herself.

Later, it was discovered that a neighbor girl's mother portrayed herself as the boy on line.

Minnesota youths are no different, Aftab said, and schools need to be prepared for new technology-based problems.

While the St. Louis "boy" turned out to be a parent, Aftab said, similar situations are easy to find between teens.

"When a minor uses technology as a weapon to intentionally target and hurt another minor, it's 'cyberbullying,'" she said.

Often, such high-tech bullying comes via mobile telephones, when students send text messages about other students. A problem that is becoming more and more common is the distribution of nude photos of youths as young as 10 via mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices. Those photos often are spread well beyond the intended recipient.

When Aftab asked how many schools have mobile phone policies, most school board members' hands went up. Many schools ban students' mobile telephones in the classroom, some in the entire school, but that raises the ire of parents who expect to be able to contact their children at any time.

"When I was growing up, calling the principal's office worked just fine," Aftab said.

Mobile phone policies differ from school district to school district, but many board members said their bans appear to work.

"They cannot have a cell phone on their person," Terry Martinson of the Mountain Iron-Buhl schools said.

The policy appears to work well, he said.

Walt Hautala of the Mesabi East district, a former principal, said the best solution to bullying of any kind is telling the principal. Mesabi East also bans mobile telephones from school.

But Gary Lee of Fertile-Beltrami schools said his district is retreating from a strict ban, going next school year instead to a policy forbidding students from using mobile phones in class, but allowing them at other times.

"During lunch hour, you can text until your fingers bleed," Lee said.

----

While bullying has been around forever, Lee said, using mobile phones and computers makes it easier to harass other youths because it no longer needs to be done face to face. "It can turn into something very dangerous."

School board members encouraged state lawmakers to leave cyberbullying policies up to local districts, and Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said that she knows of no plans to bring up the issue in next year's session.

School board association policy already prohibits "bullying of any form," said Grace Keliher, an association lobbyist.

But Aftab said schools need to do more to fight today's bullying.

For instance, a new Nintendo DSi game has an Internet connection, can take photos and can be used to send text and photo messages to others. Such games may not fit into anti-mobile phone policies.

"Ask the kids to help you," she urged school board members, when it comes time to update policies. "You have to start enlarging your policies and know what you're talking about."

One seemingly innocent situation that has turned into a problem, Aftab said, is whether teachers and students should declare themselves friends of the other on Facebook and other social networking sites. That involves school districts, and they should have policies on such issues, she said.

At least 85 percent of youths say they have experienced cyberbullying, Aftab said.

"Cyberbullying always leaks back to school," she added.

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