Cyber-bullying: students and experts say school administrations need to step up preventive efforts
When a Rutgers University freshman posted a video on the Internet of his roommate’s homosexual encounter in their dorm room, allegedly prompting 18-year-old Tyler Clementi to take his own life, he sparked a national discussion about an age-old issue that has left countless school administrations at a loss for how to protect students from a growing digital threat.
(PressZoom) - When a Rutgers University freshman posted a video on the Internet of his roommate’s homosexual encounter in their dorm room, allegedly prompting 18-year-old Tyler Clementi to take his own life, he sparked a national discussion about an age-old issue that has left countless school administrations at a loss for how to protect students from a growing digital threat.
DePaul University sophomore, Jeremy Kauffman, said he was infuriated by the lack of action following the string of recent bullying-related suicides, which is why he organized a candlelight vigil for Clementi on Oct. 8 in Lincoln Park.
“As soon as I read the article, I decided then that there’s no way I can read another article about this,” he said. “This can’t be another issue that is swept under the rug and discussed on Facebook.Â It has to go further than that. This is a human rights issue, and it’s something every gay, straight, bi, transgender person should care about.”
Local and national bullying experts agree that what school officials recognize as a problem is only the tip of the iceberg.
A public health expert and University of Illinois Chicago professor William Kling helped craft Illinois’ first anti-bullying law in 2002, which requires schools to implement anti-bullying policies.Â Since its passage, he said, there has been a rapid increase of reported violence.Â The law does not criminalize bullying itself.
Gov. Pat Quinn expanded the state’s anti-bullying law last June to include the creation of a 15-member prevention task force on school bullying, which must submit a report to the governor by March 1.Â The law also requires schools to include a policy that directly addresses the treatment of bullying situations and offer programs designed to prevent gang activity.Â
The law defines bullying as any pervasive or severe verbal or physical act, including written and electronic communication, that causes a student to feel unsafe or negatively impacts a student’s mental or academic well-being.
“I think to just focus on the bullying misses the point,” Kling said. “Clearly we have to do a better job of educating young people on tolerance, and school administrations need to clearly outline a policy that directly addresses aggressive behavior.”
Kling said in order for preventive measures to be effective, school officials need to provide students with a clear-cut definition of bullying and intervene quickly once it begins.
Bullying policy and Chicago Public Schools
The Chicago Public Schools Code of Conduct specifies that bullying behaviors could be punishable by suspension.Â In addition, the code bars behaviors including hate speech, offensive language and gestures on the basis ofÂ “race, color, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender identity, gender expression or disability.” Nancy Willard, director of the Eugene, Ore. based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, which provides research to educators nation-wide, said she thinks the real issue is determining what is within a school administration’s purview.
“A major problem is the lack of clarity among school officials regarding when they can respond to off campus speech,” said Willard. “But school officials do have the authority to respond to abusive off campus speech, especially when the speech is interfering with a student’s instruction and safety.”
Willard said cyber-bullying is impossible to control unless victimized students comed forward. “There’s no way they can monitor it,” she said. “Students need to feel safe to report the issue.”
But according to a recent study from the Youth Voice Project at Penn State Erie, only 42 percent of 10,000 survey participants said they reported their own bullying experiences to an adult.
Researchers at Iowa State University attribute this silence to a feeling of powerlessness and a fear of “tattling.” and a general belief that nothing would be done to stop it. In addition, more than half of the bullying victims surveyed said they doubted a school official would be able to help them, according to the study, which was published in May’s “International Journal of Critical Pedagogy.”
“One of the things that we’re seeing is that young people feel their peers have more power in stopping bullying than anyone else,” said Warren Blumenfeld, an associate professor at Iowa State University and the study’s lead author. He said peers are divided into allies, people who stand up and take action, and bystanders who don’t do anything.
“There is no such thing as an innocent bystander in a bully situation,” Blumenfeld said. “If you don’t do anything you’re condoning it.”
Blumenfeld said the same logic applies to school officials. He recommended schools not only create a specific policy against bullying and electronic bullying, but also provide leadership training to empower kids to speak up when they experience or witness this type of behavior.
Blumenfeld also pointed to other consequences bully victims suffer. He said students who suffer from taunts or bullying are at higher risk for depression, skipping school for fear of safety issues and on average, earn lower grades than those who do not experience bullying.
Silence in the halls at Al Raby High School
Interviews with some students at Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park seem to illustrate the experts’ findings. The members of the school’s new Gay Straight Alliance club say that although the school’s officials promote an LGBTQ-friendly environment, teachers often ignore bullying that falls short of classroom disruption.
“If kids aren’t getting into fights or yelling across the classroom, teachers ignore it,” said 18-year-old club member Jessica Smith. “They think we’re old enough that we can handle the situation on our own.”
Chikara Washington, 17, said many of her straight female friends gave her the cold shoulder after she came out as bisexual during her sophomore year.
Another student reported that a teacher prevented her from sharing information about LGBTQ issues in class, telling her she’d be better off “taking it to that gay club.”
Club member Dion Dix, 16, said he and many other gay boys at the school have simply learned to avoid talking to heterosexual male students because any interaction almost always leads to a fight.
And despite the students’ confidence in their own sexual identities and the rainbow-colored flyers hanging in the halls that read, “This is a safe place to be who you are,” homosexual youth at the school say they still feel like they have to censor themselves around their teachers, peers and families for fear of negative attention or inviting physical abuse.
It gets better
This is partly the reason why internationally syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project” in September. Savage spoke to college students at Northwestern University on Oct. 7 and said he decided to launch the YouTube channel to send a message to homosexual teens that life improves after high school, a message he said many school administrations prevent him from giving on campus.
“We need to start holding school administrators accountable,” Savage said. “A 16-year-old boy walks into a shopping mall and beats up an old lady, he gets arrested and prosecuted for assault.Â A 16-year-old who beat up Asher Brown didn’t even get suspended.”
Brown, a 13-year-old in Houston, fatally shot himself earlier this year after being physically and verbally harassed by classmates because they believed he was gay.
Savage also pointed out that bullied straight teenagers who take their own lives get more attention.Â He gave the example of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince who hung herself last January after several months of harassment.
“The case in Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, who was being cyber-bullied, took her own life. Her bullies were arrested,” he said. “Nobody’s been arrested in Asher Brown’s case, Seth [Walsh’s] case or Cody Barker’s case.”
Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Cali. and Cody Barker, 17, of Shioctin, Wisc. also committed suicide earlier this year after years of relentless bullying.
The students and faculty at Al Raby High School are certainly trying to mobilize on this issue. Gay Straight Alliance faculty advisor Bill Weeks said Tuesday that the students will be posting flyers with the hotline number to the Trevor Project, an organization that provides 24-hour crisis intervention to LGBTQ youth. He added that administrators will be training teachers to better recognize suicidal behavior.
The students say they hope these initiatives will help their teachers and peers to be more actively supportive; a choice that, Dan Savage says, makes the difference between a gay kid and a dead kid.
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