Bullies upload abusive tactics online
A ban on electronic harassment is being studied by the state
In a recent meeting at the Legislature, a student pulled out a cell phone and showed a lawmaker a text-message example of how students are using technology to bully other students.
"Give me your lunch money or I'm going to fight you," read the message.
A fairly recent phenomena, cyberbullying -- using cell phones, computers and other technology as harassment tools -- is blamed for increasing dropout rates, poor academic performance and school violence.
In Hawaii, the problem became apparent last year when videos of fights at two public schools appeared on the Internet and some students reported online threats by fellow classmates.
CONFRONTING HIGH-TECH BULLIES
Here are a few tips on how to prevent cyberbullying and respond to it.
» Don't post or send information others could use against you.
» Don't hang around online places where people treat you badly.
» Ignore or block communications.
» Don't retaliate. This only gives a cyberbully a "win."
» Save the evidence and try to figure out who the bully is.
» Decide whether you can handle the situation yourself or if you should tell an adult or school counselor.
» Contact the police if the cyberbullying includes any threats.
Book resources: "Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats" and "Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens" by Nancy Williard
Source: Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
Now, a bill moving through the Legislature would require the state Department of Education to adopt rules to deal with cyberbullies.
"I don't want to say anything negative about the DOE, they are doing the best they can," said state Rep. John Mizuno, who introduced House Bill 532. "But I think it is good that we take this route -- that we are so concerned about school bullying that we are going to address it through a law."
Among other things, the proposal calls for a confidential reporting process for victims of cyberbullying and asks schools to record, investigate and respond to the incidents with punishments like suspension.
However, a companion bill introduced in the Senate is not likely to advance.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Norman Sakamoto believes the Board of Education should develop policies against cyberbullying without the Legislature getting involved.
"Since the board is already checking that, I think they should continue and do the best they can," Sakamoto said, adding he intends to hold the bill.
Last year, the school board declared school safety among their top priorities and assigned an ad-hoc committee to study the issue.
In September, the group recommended educating students and parents about cyberbullying, monitoring how often it happens and creating systemwide programs for victims. But the suggestions have not yet translated into policies.
Board member Breene Harimoto, who sat in the committee, acknowledged that the board needs to revisit the problem, which he said is widespread.
"I know it is here, it's all over," he said. "It is just what we do about it. I think there is a lot of denial. People believe we can't do anything about it because it originates off campus."
Last summer, clips about brawls between students from Campbell and Farrington High schools were posted on YouTube.com, which led to a confrontation and several arrests.
Farrington now has an anti-bullying program for ninth-graders and teachers are encouraged to talk about cyberbullying when going over Internet policies for campus computers, said principal Catherine Payne.
While there have been no similar incidents at the school this year, Payne said "the potential is out there."
"It's hard because it's not always clear, they can hide," she said, adding that it's hard to verify someone's identity online.
Recent incidents at isle schools have ranged from students hacking into other students' Internet profiles to impersonating teachers in chat rooms and posting upskirt shots of instructors online, said Honolulu Police Department Detective Chris Duque.
Duque, who visits schools to teach students about cyberbullying, said administrators need more help to educate people about the problem.
"Overall, there's a definite lack of resources to address it," said Duque, who's with HPD's white-collar crime unit.
Harimoto said the state Attorney General needs to be consulted about how schools would investigate most cyberbullying incidents, many of which start off campus.
That concern is echoed at schools nationwide, said Nancy Willard, executive director for the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.
She said a federal court ruling in Pennsylvania found that a school examining records of electronics use, such as a student's cell phone, would be violating wiretapping laws. Meanwhile, a national legal standard that says schools may respond to off-campus cyberbullying as long as there is a substantial threat of disruption at the school is under review by the Supreme Court, Willard said.
Schools have been able to stop some cyberbullying cases by calling parents of suspected students and alerting them to the harassment, she said. Another option is to have students sign a form agreeing to have their electronic devices confiscated in case of an investigation.
"The manner in which Internet use is being managed in schools needs to be totally revisited and revised," she said, noting that the measure before lawmakers in Hawaii appears to be headed in the right direction.
"This is the best legislation I've seen," she added. "Schools right now are sort of running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to deal with this."
Greg Knudsen, spokesman for the DOE, said school officials are considering changes to Chapter 19, which relates to discipline, so that it will specifically mention cyberbullying. Even that, he said, might not be enough to stop a problem that is constantly changing as technology advances.
"No one has a grip on that," Knudsen said. "Next year, it may be no ball-point pens with little cameras. It's hard to be too specific about it."