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Posted: August 9, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Cyberbullying: The internet’s dark side

As technology in schools grows, will cyberbullying become bigger and uglier?

A 13-year-old girl’s science fair project to combat cyberbullying among teens secured her a spot in Google’s 15 Global Science Fair finalists.

Trisha Prabhu, 13, of Illinois, created her project to test the prevalence of online bullying after making them take a minute to think twice about what they are about to post. Her theory was that younger brains are less developed than an adult’s, leading to more impulsive posting on social media.

“Research shows that, over 50% of adolescents and teens have been bullied online and 10 to 20% experience it regularly,” Prabhu said on her project site. “Research also shows that adolescents that post mean/hurtful messages may not understand the potential consequences of their actions because the pre-frontal cortex, the area of brain that controls reasoning and decision-making isn’t developed until age 25.”

She hypothesized that if people ages 12-18 were given an alert that prompted them to re-think their willingness to post hurtful messages online, the number of such messages would decrease. Her project site stated her “Rethink” system proved the hypothesis 93.43 percent of the time.

But cyberbullying doesn’t happen here, right? Chicago is not Newton County.

Wrong.

As the use and acceptance of technology expands and grows in schools across the county, the idea that social media can be used to perpetuate mean and hurtful words and actions that many parents and students may think is a rite of passage also becomes more of a reality.

Georgia law dictates exactly what bullying is and what school personnel can do to punish those who violate that definition.

Education as prevention

Darren Berry, student services supervisor for the Newton County School System (NCSS), said a major aim in the school district is to prevent cyberbullying from happening in the first place by educating students on the effects and consequences of bullying a classmate.

Bullying education is an initiative of the school counseling departments, Berry said, and, depending on the level of the school, posters and brochures are used to expose students to the subject. Elementary and middle schools use classroom guidance.

“They do include a conversation on the use of technology and how it could relate to anything on bullying under Georgia,” Berry said.

While there is no legal definition of cyberbullying in Georgia law, Berry said, the term is generally indicative of harassment through electronic means. Within the definition, there is a section that mentions bullying can occur electronically, but the school’s jurisdiction is limited. A school can only punish a student for cyberbullying if the incident is transmitted through school hardware or networks.

Also, Berry said, data is not taken pertaining the mean of bullying; just the number of total incidents.

“Recently, (the Georgia Legislature) did discuss expanding the role of the school in investigating types of bullying. It’s been discussed but has not been actually changed,” Berry said.

What are the consequences?

In the NCSS policy and code of conduct, after a third incident in one school year that has been investigated and is found to be under the definition of bullying, the student is transferred to an alternative school setting. Consequences for the first two incidents are at the discretion of the administration, ranging from a parent-teacher conference to suspension up to 10 days.

There are also ways bullying off campus may fall under a school’s duty to investigate, Berry said. For example, is an incident occurs off campus and outside of school times but spills over into school, the school must take action. Maybe, he said, a conflict arises over a Facebook post, and it becomes a disruption at school the next day. Or if a student or parents notifies the school something is going on out of class that cannot be solved, the students involved may be put through an administrative hearing or sent to the counselor’s office.

And, of course, schools always are involved in an off campus incident if a felony is involved.

When the game changes

“Logically, we would assume that because of the expanding availability of technology within school, that would expand the possibilities of things happening under that (bullying) definition,” Berry said. “But we’re very reactive to our security and with blocking sites, so if the student is in school and using out network, they wouldn’t be able to get on Facebook.

“We try to stay on our toes, and I think we do a pretty good job at that, but we don’t want to shut our network down to the point where it’s unusable.”

Berry said there has not been a memorable or drastic case of cyberbullying in the district since he can remember, but the caution must always be out there to catch anything that does happen.

“How much of what goes on at home is something the schools are going to be able to track and follow?” Berry said. “We want to protect the kids, but there’s also going to be a section (in the law) that says what happens at home is not the school’s business. But that debate is raged by the people in Atlanta.”

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