North Dakota schools step up response to cyberbullying

Schools in ND are stepping up digital citizenship and vigilance to combat social media bullying

When Catherine Gillach started her career as a principal 16 years ago, the realm of social media had yet to get off the ground.

The founding of Facebook was four years away. It would be 2006 before students were tweeting and another five years after that they would be sending pictures that exist for only seconds at time on Snapchat.

“When I started there was nothing like this at all even in existence,” Gillach said. “I would say, probably the last seven or eight years … is when social media and all the branches of that took off. That’s when it really started to impact the schools.”

Schools in Grand Forks and nationwide have long warned students about the dangers of the Internet, emphasizing they keep personal information to themselves, but increasing use of social media has kept that message of safety evolving and expanding.

Social media has changed the landscape of learning and student interaction in both good and bad ways. It’s the unsavory side that can bring students to Gillach’s office at Elroy Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks, showing her screenshots of upsetting comments others have posted.

Websites and apps have created a platform where students can bully one another or post pictures of illegal activity without having to step foot in school walls. School bullying policies and procedures have been adjusted to include online bullying that has a direct impact on the school environment.

Formal and informal lessons on cybersafety have been expanded to tackle social media conundrums, which can involve law enforcement in cases of persistent online bullying that qualify as criminal harassment.

Educating students about the rights and wrongs of the platform is key with citations coming as a last resort, said Cpl. Justin Holweger, a school resource officer assigned to Red River High School.

“It’s a rare occasion that it results in a criminal violation to be pursued,” he added.

Tailored message

Both Gillach and Holweger have watched issues surrounding student use of social media grow over the course of their careers.

As the years have passed, curriculum regarding online safety have been tailored to student age groups. At the high school level, students are warned that posting or sending inappropriate pictures or texts could negatively impact their job hunts or college applications.

For younger students, the message is a little different.

“At the middle level here, it has a lot to do with more of the social emotional piece if you will. We see things that come in that are typically similar to what have been the traditional turmoils of the adolescent,” Gillach said. “Kids are trying to fit in, they’re trying to figure out what they want to be like and who they are. Unfortunately, at this time of life, not everybody is kind to everybody all the time.”

Next page: Policy that protects students

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