By Emily J. Weitz
The word “bully” conjures up distinct images and memories in everyone, usually tied to a personal experience. And there’s an assumption that a bully is a bully and a victim is a victim, and we basically understand the dynamic.
But for kids currently in middle and high school – a breeding ground for this kind of activity — the landscape looks very different than it did a half-generation ago. The advent of the Internet has changed things. The barriers and safe havens are gone.
“You don’t know the chaos going on in your kids’ electronic worlds,” said Detective Rory Forrestal from the Suffolk Computer Crimes unit, a division formed in 1998.
Forrestal led a lecture on cyberbullying at the Hampton Bays Community Center last Wednesday, October 24 speaking to a crowd of students, teachers, and parents.
“That electronic world is critically important to these kids,” he said.
Forrestal went on to share several stories of tragedies from around the country that could have easily been avoided if some simple steps had been followed.
“Look at Phoebe Prince,” he said, flipping the Powerpoint presentation to a photo of a 15-year-old girl smiling shyly at the camera. “The mean girls start cyberbullying her on Facebook. When they don’t get the reaction they want, it becomes physical. Throwing soda cans at her, pushing her at school.”
According to Forrestal, one day when the harassment had become particularly bad, Prince, who lived in Massachusetts, sent a text to a school friend saying, “I can’t take this much longer.”
That night, she hanged herself.
When Prince’s mother faced her daughter’s tormenters in court, she told them, “It is nearly impossible to measure the impact of Phoebe’s death upon our lives. … There is a dead weight that now sits permanently in my chest.”
Students were sentenced to punishments like probation and community service, while more serious charges — like assault, battery, and the felony civil rights violation with bodily injury — were dropped.
Forrestal pointed out that cyberbullying laws in New York State are severely limited, and while victims have been tortured with Facebook posts, text messages and sexts (sexually explicit text messages), it is still difficult to hold people responsible.
“The most important thing,” said Forrestal, “is to stop this before it starts. Phoebe Prince is gone over nonsense. Between cyberbullying and sexting, there is a suicide phenomenon. There really is.”
Sexting, Forrestal explained, can present the near opposite problem as cyberbullying. While there are no laws on the books to protect kids from cyberbullying, texting sexual photos can actually be tried as Disseminating Child Pornography.
“Twenty percent of teens say they have sent or posted naked or semi-naked photos or videos [on the Internet],” Forrestal said. “If you have a sext of someone under the age of 18, you can be charged with possession of child pornography. If you send that sext, that’s distribution. If you take that sext, even if it’s of yourself, that’s making child pornography.”
All of those charges add up to a mandatory minimum sentence of sex offender probation for six to 10 years. That means a 17-year-old girl who takes a picture to send to her boyfriend would have to register as a sex offender for at least half a dozen years.
“Kids are talked into doing inappropriate things,” said Forrestal, “and it is then used against them.”
So how can we stop the devastating effects that technology can have on our children?
“The best thing a child can do is to not respond,” Forrestal said. “Most of these things would end if kids just didn’t respond. Then block the person and print the screen.”
That means if it’s a request for a sext, reject it, said Forrestal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or a stranger – once that picture is out of your hands, it’s totally out of your control, he added. And if it’s some sort of harassment on Facebook or a chat room or another social media outlet, block that user and print the evidence, he advised.
“You control who you add,” said Forrestal. “Use privacy blocks, keep your stuff personal, and only communicate with people you know.”
Detective Forrestal’s unit has been in place since 1998, but he said that in 2005, the problems associated with cyberbullying intensified dramatically.
“We were seeing a tragedy a week,” he said. “Then [Congressman] Tim Bishop funded the educational programs we’ve since put in place. Fifth to eighth graders are taught about Internet safety in school. These small measures have definitely made things get better.”
Of course, we still have a long way to go, he said. The Dignity for All Students Act took effect on July 1, 2012 and because of it every school has a staff member devoted to the issue of bullying. Find out who it is in your school and talk to them if there’s a problem, said Forrestal. Most importantly, Forrestal warned to pay close attention to your kids, to what they’re doing online and to what they’re talking about.
“Seventy-five percent of the tragedies we’ve seen across the country,” Forrestal said, “nobody even knew it was going on.”
Sidebar: Acting Out to Help Stop Bullying
Local middle and high school students from the Southampton-based Act TWO Community Theater Program attended the Cyberbullying workshop and shared some of the ways they’ve been working to combat the effects of bullying in their schools. They performed skits showing the ways bullying happens, and ways to stand up to a bully.
“There are always going be bullies,” said Jeremy Schwartz, a student in Westhampton Beach. “In middle school, it’s an ever-growing fight for popularity.”
The students in Act TWO created a short film showing various scenarios that could result from the ways they address bullying.
“We wrote up a script,” said Lorenzo Rodriguez of Hampton Bays, “about a kid and his best friend, and how she would have gone back and done things differently if she had another chance.”
Courtney King, also of Hampton Bays, added, “What kids need to realize is that they have a voice, and if they use it, they could save a life.”