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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

Data on cyberbullying trends are limited with few organizations tracking their prevalence. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is administered statewide every other year gives some insight into the issue.

Results from 2013 and 2015 show a higher percentage of North Dakota middle schoolers report being bullied electronically than their high school counterparts.

In particular, about 38 percent of middle school girls reported both years they had been bullied through emails, texts, social media posts and other electronic methods in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.

In the Grand Forks region — composed of Grand Forks, Pembina, Steele, Traill and Walsh counties — 28 percent of middle schoolers reported they had been bullied through electronic means in 2015. Eighteen percent of high schools responded similarly.

“We give them these powerful little computers in their hands and they can say and do anything they want at anytime, and our adolescents don’t necessarily think first,” Gillach said. “They will say things first out in ‘cyberland’ and think about things afterward. They don’t always realize the long-term potential harm that they could be causing themselves and others.”

Statewide data from both survey years indicates a smaller percentage of students reported being victims of that type of bullying as the grade level increases. In 2015, about 28 percent of seventh-graders reported they had been cyberbullied versus 14 percent of 12th-graders.

Policy and procedure

Elroy Schroeder Middle School and others within the district have bullying policies in place that do include cyberbullying and corrective measures for it.

When a student reports an incident involving social media, school administrators must make the determination of whether it has a direct impact on the school environment.

Gillach cited examples such as a student threatening violence to another or a student refusing to attend school because of online comments as cases where there would be a direct tie to school.

A checklist of questions is run through with the reporting student to help administrators come to a decision.

In some cases, there is no impact on the school environment, but that doesn’t mean action is taken.

“I can’t go and give that student detention or suspension or anything of that nature because there’s nothing that’s happening in this environment,” Gillach said of such an incident. “What we will do in that case is we will involve our police liaison officer, because it’s a community-based conflict, and we will contact parents as a courtesy.”

Most of the time, meetings with parents and school officers spur a change in behavior, she added.

North Dakota law defines bullying but does not provide an outlet for criminal prosecution. In some extreme cases, students can be charged with harassment or disorderly conduct and referred to juvenile court.

“As far as law enforcement is concerned, we don’t have a citation that I can write a kid for bullying,” Holweger said.

The subject is broached in school, but both Holweger and Gillach encourage parents to speak with their kids about appropriate uses of social media and monitor their use of websites, phone and tablet apps and text conversations.

“I think that every parent … should have access to their kid’s phone and access to their media sites, have access to passwords and passcodes to get into those and should be able to view those at any time,” Holweger said.

In the five years he has been a school resource officer, Holweger has seen preferences shift in terms of sites and apps, with students moving away from Facebook and heading toward Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

As preferences change so do the school district’s efforts to keep up with how its students use the technology and new challenges that come with the latest digital platforms.

“The technology comes out more rapidly than we can keep pace with, so unfortunately for some of those environments we end up being more reactive than proactive,” Gillach said. “But, the message is usually the same as far us wanting kids to be safe and responsible”

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