There was a time when bullied children got a reprieve each day when they left school.
Home was a sanctuary where little could reach them before they returned to school the next day, said Peggy Shaver, a guidance counselor for Waterloo schools.
But 21st century technology gives bullies access to their victims 24 hours a day, from text messages on cellphones to posts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Waterloo school officials asked parents to join them in spotting and ending abuse by helping to monitor their children’s phone and Internet activities.
A seminar this month, hosted by the district’s Waterloo Community Action Committee, empowered parents with information and tips.
Shaver, who presents an 80-minute anti-bullying program to most of the children in the district, said children need adult guidance because they are too young to always understand the connection between poor behavior and consequences.
For instance, she said, the children are taught that using their phone to take, forward or store a nude photo of themselves or a fellow student is a felony and can land the perpetrator in a sex offender’s database. Ohio law does not make a distinction if the person in possession of the material is a minor, she said.
Still, a survey of students showed that while 75 percent of them remembered that fact, 20 percent took or forwarded nude photos anyway.
Technology also makes it easier for bullies to say and do things they would never do in person.
“It’s easier to be mean to someone if you’re typing words onto a screen and not looking a person in the face,” Shaver said.
Some parents in the audience suggested recommending that parents keep kids away from technology, but parent Shawn Renee Miller said that’s not practical.
“We’re not going to stop technology, folks,” she said. “We’re not going back to pen and paper.”
Better, she said, to teach students how to use technology while respecting it.
Here are some helpful tips Shaver and middle and high school Principal Matt Montgomery presented:
Defining a bully
“The word is thrown around all the time,” Montgomery said, “but you need a working definition to understand what bullying is.”
It does not include a single instance of a student being mean to another student.
“As people, sometimes we are unkind to each other,” Montgomery said.
By law, bullying is when someone causes mental or physical harm to the extent that it creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment for another student. The key is that the behavior must be repeated and intentional.
Three types of bullying
Physical bullying — kicking, hitting, spitting — might be the most obvious type, but it’s also the least common, Shaver said.
Most students resort to emotional or social bullying.
Emotional bullying can range from name calling to threats to intimidation. Social bullying means deliberately excluding a student, telling other students not to be friends with him or her or spreading rumors intended to ruin someone’s social circle.
At Waterloo, Shaver said, social bullying is probably the most prevalent. It is made easier through the use of technology.
Many parents don’t know what their children are up to because “you may simply not understand what the technology is capable of,” Montgomery said. “We have to find a way to help parents understand how the technology works.”
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are three popular social media sites that bullies have at their disposal.
Montgomery warned parents that students can have multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts, harmless ones with pleasant posts visible to their parents, and others their parents don’t see.
And parents who know about Facebook and Twitter might not even be familiar with Instagram, a newer addition to the world of social media. At first glance, parents might think their children are just using it to share photos, but Instagram also has a chat and post function in which kids are sharing messages.
Shaver recently asked a class of 9- and 10-year-olds how many had their own cellphone. About 75 percent raised their hands.
Students that young often have no idea about the legal and ethical pitfalls in their pocket and might not even equate negative text messages with bullying.
Some providers allow parents to log online and read all text messages sent and received by a phone, even if the messages are deleted on the phone.
Shaver said she has heard parents resist such monitoring, saying they are concerned about their children’s privacy.
“They don’t need privacy,” Shaver said. “They need protection.”
Nearly 40 percent of students admit to sending or posting suggestive messages, Shaver said, and many students seem undeterred by the fact they are participating in a felony.
Many students — and their parents — don’t know that even a student who simply receives a nude photo sent by another student is breaking the law if they save the photo, Shaver said.
“If it’s on your phone, you are in possession of child pornography. If you send it to someone else, you are trafficking in child pornography,” she said.
Students who receive such a photo should show it to an adult immediately so they have a witness, then delete the photo.
Montgomery added that the law is so sweeping, even an administrator in possession of a nude photo sent to them as evidence in an investigation is not protected.
Students who take such a photo, even if it is not their phone and they do not themselves forward it to anyone, are equally culpable under the law.
A new app available for many cellphones is particularly dangerous, Montgomery said, because everyone thinks it is safe.
The app allows people to exchange messages with their cellphones, but the message is only visible for a few seconds and then disappears. Students use the app for sexting and sending nude photos for that reason.
However, some phones have a “print screen” function that allows the user to hold two buttons down and create an image of whatever is on their cellphone screen. That turns the Snap Chat message into an image that can be re-sent to others or posted on the Internet.
“They’re going to use it and feel invisible, but they’re not,” Montgomery warned.
Response to bullies
Parents: If you see a negative post about your child on another student’s Facebook account, do not respond to it, Montgomery said. You will not win the battle, other students might join in, and your child might face even more taunting.
When it comes to advising your child on how to deal with a nonphysical bullying situation, here are four strategies from Shaver and Montgomery:
•?Walk away. You might need to do that more than once. Bullies want a reaction. If their victim doesn’t cry or get angry, they probably will move on.
•?Stand up for yourself. Bullies want a passive target and might not think you’re worth the effort if you’re not taking it. Again, it could take more than once to get the message across.
•?Turn the situation into humor or agree with a taunt. Agreeing with them takes bullies’ power away and confuses them.
•?Tell an adult. Shaver said this one is the hardest for students, especially in middle school. Students are fearful of retaliation.
That’s another reason parents should monitor their child’s cellphone and Internet activity.
Often, it takes a mindful parent to spot the trouble and work with school officials to end it.
“You have to be their voice,” Montgomery said.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.