Rylee Driscoll was a student at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian when fellow students began harassing her online.
It started with an old-fashioned rumor that she was “the rudest person ever.” The criticism quickly blew up on Twitter. Classmates started sharing messages accusing her of theft. Going to school became so hard that she started skipping class.
She heard the advice from parents and teachers to ignore the comments and turn off the messages. She couldn’t do it.
“I know I shouldn’t have responded,” said Driscoll, who graduated last year. “I just got so mad, and so sad. You want to know what people are saying so you can defend yourself.”
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One in five Idaho high school students say they have been cyberbullied, according to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey taken by the Idaho Department of Education. The 21.1 percent rate is the highest reported in the U.S, according to a new report by Educents, an educational products company.
Girls were bullied far more than boys — 31 percent vs. 11 percent. The rates actually might be higher, the survey report said, because students may underreport socially undesirable or illegal behaviors, including bullying. The agency surveyed 1,760 students in 48 public high schools in spring 2015.
But rates are also high in surrounding states: 18.5 percent in Montana and 17.5 percent in Wyoming. The national rate is 15.6 percent. Other studies have found that Intermountain West states also rank high for suicides, so similar factors might be in play, including limited access to mental-health services.
Chris Bates is a Boise parent who became an anti-bullying activist after classmates bullied her daughter several years ago in high school. She blames Idaho’s high rates on a coarsening of American culture, in which adults’ dialogue in the public and political spheres has become crass.
“Kids see adults being bullied online and on TV on a daily basis,” Bates said. “People have become desensitized.”
Apps that let users make anonymous comments can foster bullying. The College of Idaho banned the use of the now-defunct Yik Yak app in 2015 after students used it to criticize classmates. Some groups, including Educents, are now raising similar concerns about a newer anonymous messaging app, Sarahah.
The app description in the Google Play store says Sarahah “helps people self-develop by receiving constructive anonymous feedback.” Some reviews say Sarahah is being used as a cyberbullying tool. In a CNN Tech story, the app’s founder said the app experienced massive growth among younger users after teens started posting Sarahah messages on Snapchat. It’s reported to have 62 million users.
One of the cruelest aspects of cyberbullying is that a child’s own home is no longer a refuge. Driscoll, the former Rocky Mountain High student, received bullying texts and emails no matter where she was.
Driscoll eventually was able to channel her grief. She founded an antibullying group that she has since passed on to a younger friend still in high school. Through that effort, Driscoll created her own, more supportive social group. She is now studying nursing at the College of Western Idaho.
Yet she still contends with harassment and said it only recently subsided.
But is it really cyberbullying?
David Gomez, a Meridian police officer, is the school resource officer at Mountain View High School in the in the West Ada School District. He questions whether cyberbullying is as common as the report suggests. He doesn’t believe people define the term precisely enough.
Gomez defines it as repeated, one-way harassment of a victim who does not engage in the exchange.
“Normally, there’s a Twitter fight, and I get a call from a parent who tells me their child is being bullied,” he said. “When I start asking questions, I usually find out that there are two active participants. That’s not cyberbullying. It’s social conflict.”
Social conflict, of course, must be resolved, “or you end up with adults having issues, road rage and more,” Gomez said.
The survey question that led to Idaho’s high ranking asked students whether they had been electronically bullied through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting on school property during the past 12 months.
Though Gomez believes that cyberbullying as he defines it is rare, it does happen. In his three years at Mountain View, he’s written just four $74 citations for cyberbullying. That happened after school officials intervened and disciplined students as required by law, but harassment continued.
A bigger danger?
For Gomez, a threat bigger than cyberbullying is students’ misunderstanding about the dangers of divulging private information and how vulnerable that makes them.
He calls out parents on a couple of fronts. First, to have social media accounts, companies such as Twitter and Facebook specify that a child must be at least 13. Some parents look the other way and let their children fudge about their real ages to get accounts. That sets a bad example, he said.
He said he also has worked with parents who give their children too much freedom. Some parents are afraid to check their children’s phones for fear the kids will think their parents don’t trust them. “I have two words that I say to them: So what?” Gomez said.
Gomez joined the Meridian Police Department after working as an engineer at Micron. He now uses his knowledge of computers to give safety presentations focused on social media to community groups, parents, churches and others throughout the Valley. He never charges for his presentations but he does ask that groups make the presentations open to the public.
In 2015, the Idaho Legislature passed a law that strengthened an existing anti-bullying law and extended it to cyberbullying.
The law requires school personnel to intervene on behalf of bullied students. It requires that school staffs receive training on bullying, that districts will have a disciplinary protocol in place when bullying occurs, and that districts will designate “point people” at each school who will take reports of bullying from students or their families.
Since the law passed, school districts have shown more interest in opportunities for anti-bullying education, said Matt McCarter, director of student engagement and career and technical readiness the Idaho State Department of Education.
Even with the law in place, bullying presents legal challenges for schools. When bullying takes place off school grounds, the district must demonstrate that it disrupts school operations before intervening or searching social media activity on a student’s phone or other device.
“It happens in schools, but it’s not a school issue alone,” McCarter said. “Violence is a learned behavior influenced by community and family. Schools are looked at as a panacea, but a lot happens outside our sphere of influence.”
The rule of thumb adopted by schools is that the school is responsible for students from “bus stop to bus stop,” said Gomez. “Anything on the weekends or at home is usually handled by the school resource officer or patrol, as it is not considered a school issue.”
Local school districts, including West Ada and Boise, have anti-bullying policies. Their curricula include proper social media use at the elementary and secondary levels. Educators teach digital citizenship, which includes components of cyberbullying.
What to do if bullying occurs
What should students do if they believe they’re being bullied, whether online or in person?
McCarter said students should find out who is the school’s designated person to hear reports and tell that person what they’re experiencing. If a student doesn’t feel comfortable doing that, a parent or guardian should contact that school authority, McCarter said.
After that, counselors or school administrators might get involved. If the problem persists, a school resource officer might join the conversation. Even then, McCarter said, an officer will try mediation and working with alleged offenders and victims before issuing a citation.
Social media: Safety advice for parents
From Matt McCarter, Idaho State Department of Education:
1. Parents should write up contracts governing cellphone use for their children to sign. It should include specific rules and times when parents will check texts, apps and other information.
2. It’s hard to keep up with new modes of communication, but this creates an opportunity for parents and children to interact. Parents can ask their kids to help them download Instagram or set up a Facebook account if they haven’t already. McCarter recommends the website for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps parents keep up with the latest social media and technology.
From David Gomez, Meridian Police Department:
3. Limit your child’s social media “friends” to 200. “If a child comes to me with a social media-related problem and has 2,000 friends, it’s harder to find the problem,” Gomez said.
The typical middle school student has between 500 and 3,000 friends, Gomez said. Even if they don’t post their own information, being connected to that many people opens them up to a barrage of gossip, bad news and conflicts.
4. Make a rule that a child will not engage in negative talk on any form of social media.
5. Block and delete negative messages ... but parents should remember that this won’t be effective if their child’s friends are still sending them screen shots of negative messages. On a related note, remember that even if a Facebook, Twitter or other account is deleted, it’s instantly retrievable with a user name and password.
6. Take a social media break. Leave your phone in a drawer for a few days and see what happens. “Bullies get bored and move on,” Gomez said.
See Officer David Gomez’s full presentation about students and social media safety on his Facebook page.
Connect with Idaho Anti-Bullying, a group of parents and students, on its Facebook page.