In the News: Cyber-bullying comes to Peachtree City school

It’s the least physical and non-confrontational, but perhaps the most public way to humiliate and intimidate others: cyber-bullying.

Such behavior recently took a high-profile turn in Peachtree City, a planned community 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, where middle school students are suspected of creating a Facebook page that targeted peers with anti-gay slurs and offered inappropriate photos of at least one female student.

The page, which has been removed after students and parents at J.C. Booth Middle School lodged complaints, contained lists that rated students on attractiveness, popularity and sexual orientation, said Melinda Berry-Dreisbach, Fayette County Schools spokeswoman.

The Facebook page also displayed anti-gay slurs and conjecture about a female student’s sexual activity. School officials and Peachtree City Police are investigating who created the page and whether laws were broken. Students are believed to be responsible.

With the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media still a new mode of communication, cyber-bullying is uncharted territory for most parents and school officials.

“I don’t foresee this being the end of it, because I think it’s a growing problem that we’re going to face across the country and worldwide,” Berry-Dreisbach said.

Cyber-bullying, or using social media Web sites or phone texting to degrade others, has received national attention after several instances emerged of young people committing suicide because of postings.

In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., killed herself after a classmate’s mother posed as a teenage boy on a MySpace site and harassed the girl.

In January, high school student Phoebe Prince of Hadley, Mass., hanged herself after she was mistreated by a group of her peers.

And just last month, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after a roommate posted videos of him engaged in sexual activity with another male.

The Missouri mother was convicted and later acquitted of computer fraud charges; six students face criminal charges ranging from stalking to criminal harassment in the aftermath of Prince’s death; and two students have been charged with invasion of privacy and could face added charges related to Clementi’s death.

According to a poll compiled by Harris Interactive Inc. for the National Crime Prevention Council, 43 percent of teens have reported becoming victims of cyber-bullying.

At J.C. Booth Middle School, officials learned of the Facebook page through students and parents last week. By Sunday, the site was dismantled, though it’s unclear whether it was taken down by the creators or by Facebook.

By Monday, school officials had alerted parents whose children were listed on the site and sent a letter home to all parents discussing the cyber-bullying incident. Also on Monday, principal Ted Lombard held a school-wide assembly to discuss the ramifications of bullying.

“Kids still don’t understand and that’s why we have to keep teaching them, that what you post can hurt others right now and it might come back and haunt you later in life,” Berry-Dreisbach said. “Our reach doesn’t go into the home. We need our parents working with us on this.”

Charles Lynk, whose two sons attend the middle school, praised the J. C. Booth administration for its quick response to the incident.

“I think the school has handled it swiftly and effectively, because this is not out of any playbook,” Lynk aid. “They’re having to adjust and make decisions without precedent.”

There is no easy way to prevent bullying, which is most prevalent in middle schools, said Pamela Orpinas, a University of Georgia professor and co-author of “Bullying Prevention: Creating a Positive School Climate and Developing Social Competence.”

“It’s such a complex problem, so there is not one solution,” Orpinas said. “In general, we need to understand that it’s a behavior that is learned and it needs to have consequences.

“We need to educate parents, children and teachers about how to address it and stop it before it escalates.”

A study has demonstrated that bullying was least likely to occur in classrooms in which teachers used incidences of negative or improper remarks as an educational tool, Orpinas said.

For example, if a student made a remark derogatory toward a certain ethnic group, the teacher stopped the class and discussed the effect of the words and why the student said them. Teachers asked the students pointedly how they would feel if this was said to them.

“If those things are addressed, what happens next time?” Orpinas said. “The kids will realize they can’t get away with that.”

The UGA professor said combating bullying means changing a key social norm: the idea that this is a routine part of childhood.

“Years ago, everyone smoked everywhere,” Orpinas said. “Now you wouldn’t go to someone’s house and just light up a cigarette. That’s an incredible example of changing a social norm. … We have to make bullying also an unacceptable behavior.”

J.C. Booth plans to continue educating students about bullying prevention and the effects of this behavior. In December, the school will bring in a cyber-bullying expert to speak with parents in advance of its parent-teacher organization meeting.

Last year, J.C. Booth’s School Council, a group that includes parents, teachers and local business people, called for a student climate survey that posed questions about the prevalence of bullying. Twenty-five percent of the students reported they had been verbally bullied and 9 percent said they had been physically bullied.

Steve Brown, former Peachtree City mayor and father of a 7th-grade daughter at the school, pushed for the survey while serving as School Council president.

“We wanted to know what the exact pulse of the school is,” said Brown, who now heads the parent-teacher organization. “You can glean information you aren’t otherwise asking for or they may not be telling you.”

Katie Leslie

Posted October 25, 2010.