When Tina Meier’s 13-year-old daughter, Megan, committed suicide after being bullied on the internet, her grief was so encompassing she felt at times she couldn’t breathe. But in recent months, the Missouri woman has focused on ways to protect other children from cyber bullying–even leaving her job as a real estate agent to dedicate herself to the Megan Meier Foundation.

"Megan is still my daughter, no matter what, and I am going out there and fighting for her still because she is still my daughter," Meier said.

A group of friends and relatives helped Meier create the foundation, which seeks to educate both children and adults and encourage positive changes to prevent bullying, both in person and online.

Meier and the volunteers are working to improve laws. They speak at schools and to parent groups. They hope to begin offering scholarships to children who help other children in some way.

Megan hanged herself in her closet on Oct. 16, 2006. Her tragic story became public last fall, following an article in a suburban St. Louis newspaper that prompted widespread interest in her case. (See "Studies suggest cyber bullying is on the rise.")

Megan had a history of attention deficit disorder and depression. Her suicide came soon after she received cruel messages through the social-networking web site MySpace.

Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted 49-year-old Lori Drew, a neighbor of Megan and her family. She is accused of one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress. (See "Woman indicted in MySpace suicide case.")

The charges were filed in California, where MySpace is based. MySpace is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by News Corp.

Authorities have said Drew, Drew’s teenage daughter, and another teen took part in an online hoax, creating the fake identity of a boy named Josh Evans who befriended and flirted with Megan online. Drew allegedly wanted to know what Megan was saying about her own daughter online. Shortly before Megan’s death, the comments from "Josh" and some other internet users turned cruel, with the faux boy allegedly saying the world would be better without Megan.

Drew’s attorney, Dean Steward, said she has been advised by her lawyers not to speak about the case. Another lawyer for Drew previously said she did not create the account and was not aware of any mean messages sent to the girl before her death.

Meier, 37, said her grief hits her in waves, and it remains difficult to talk about Megan’s death. Meier’s life has gone through other changes as well. She and her husband, Ron, divorced. Meier now lives in a townhouse not far from her old neighborhood with her 12-year-old daughter, Allison.

In an interview with the Associated Press at her home in the St. Louis suburb of Dardenne Prairie, Meier said she does not believe Drew meant to drive Megan to suicide. But, Meier said, she believes Drew "played with fire" and should receive the maximum penalty: 20 years in prison.

Meier hopes the foundation’s work will allow something right to come from a wrong. She also is working with Stop Cyber Bullying, a program from WiredSafety, on its efforts to prevent online harassment. And, she’s encouraging people to take the Megan Pledge, an effort asking internet users to stop bullying.

"In just 24 hours, more than 65,000 people took the pledge–but that’s not what opened my eyes," said Art Wolinsky, educational technology director for WiredSafety.

"In that first day, people posted more than 30 pages of comments. Many of them are stories of being cyber-bullied and self-mutilation and cutting as a result of online attacks. Some [victims] have contemplated and attempted suicides. All of this [response] in just 24 hours says this is an issue we have to deal with."

On June 2 and 3, WiredSafety will be holding an International Cyber Bullying Conference in New York, where the Megan Pledge officially will launch. WiredSafety will be facilitating workshops organized by interest groups, and safety experts, policy makers, and industry leaders will use the feedback from these workshops to begin shaping strategy on how to deal with cyber bullying on a global level.  

For Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRIU), the Megan Pledge is a good start. But more needs to be done, she said.

"To effectively address the concerns of cyber bullying will require a comprehensive approach that takes place in schools and communities and is grounded in effective bullying-prevention practices," Willard told eSchool News.

She also believes that cyber bullying needs more than workshops delivered by police officers who follow D.A.R.E.-like strategies.
 
"The law-enforcement folks, who are all very well-intentioned, have implemented training programs where police officers present workshops for parents and students that are largely focused on what I consider to be fear mongering–lots of discussion about internet ‘dangers’ and what I consider to be inappropriate or misuse of data," Willard said. "These presentations also include very simplistic rules that young people are simply not going to follow: Never talk to an online stranger … [and] never post your picture online. Have they ever visited MySpace?"

She continued: "The original D.A.R.E. program, which featured police officers going to schools and talking about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and providing simple tips to avoid such use, was found through research to be totally ineffective. Further, while police officers might have had some credibility with teens on issues of drugs and alcohol, most teens do not think that adults know much at all about their online lives–and they are probably right. … Fear-mongering is undermining effective communication."

Both Willard and Wolinsky agree that cyber bullying goes well beyond the isolated incidents that make headlines, and both acknowledge that well-researched initiatives need to come into focus.

According to Wolinsky, WiredSafety talks to thousands of teens each month. And while it’s hard to quantify how pervasive cyber bullying really is, he says his conversations with teens have revealed that cyber bullying "is more significant than the press leads us to believe."

To help educators address this problem, Patty Agatston, a risk-prevention specialist for the Cobb County, Ga., School District, has developed a cyber-bullying prevention curriculum for students in grades 6-12, to be released this fall. With co-authors Robin Kowalski and Susan P. Limber, Agatston has produced what she calls a real-world program that engages students in learning how to protect themselves and their friends from cyber bullying.

Says Willard, who worked with Agatston at a panel discussion sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006 to address the issue of cyber bullying: "The key points I took away from this panel are that, while we are just at the beginning of our understanding of these issues, it is really important to focus on emerging research insights and to apply intervention approaches that are grounded in what we know is effective in adolescent risk prevention."

For Tina Meier, talking to middle and high school students about Megan’s experience is something she said she feels she needs to do. She tells them Megan was a real girl, with real dreams, and talks to them about how taunting other children can have consequences.

The presentations can be emotionally draining and leave her feeling like she’s made of Jell-O, or prompt an extended bout of crying, she said. But she gets a lot out of them, she added–especially the conversations with parents and children after she tells them Megan’s story.

At these sessions, some kids tell her they are having a tough time, she reports; others have admitted bullying classmates, but say they’ll try to change their ways.

"I just get my head in a different place. I just go, and I talk to them because my goal is, if there’s one child I can change or help in any way, that’s what I focus on," Meier said.

Friends and foundation colleagues Christine Buckles and Paul Arthur say the foundation’s work has been helpful to Meier.

"They say a mother is the strongest woman in the world. That’s absolutely true with Tina," Arthur said.

Meier said almost all the communication she receives from the public is encouraging. But she also receives comments from those who take her to task because her daughter was on antidepressants, who criticize how she raised her child, even those who judge her for divorcing her husband.

Meier is convinced those messages come from people who don’t know her and the whole story. "If I sat and listened to that every single day, and read that every single day, I wouldn’t move forward," she said.

Meier says she believes the work of her foundation is making a difference, because she hears from people who tell her so.

"I’m going to try and do the best I can do to, hopefully, know that no other family goes through this," she said.

Links:

Megan Meier Foundation

Megan Pledge

Stop Cyber Bullying

WiredSafety

International Cyber Bullying Conference

Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use