With the click of a key, bullies are humiliating their peers. What are schools doing to tame this behavior?
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The most common instances often involve instant messaging, or IM - the instantaneous chats that have spawned a lingo of their own and are a constant presence on most kids' computers. Bullies can send a mean or threatening IM with no identification beyond a selected screen-name. If that name gets blocked, they choose another.Skip to next paragraph
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More recently, it's cellphones. For several years now, bullying via text messaging and cellphone photos has been a concern in countries such as Britain and Japan, where such technologies are common. Stutzky says he's just beginning to see it in the US. He heard from a high-school boy who got text messages questioning his sexual orientation, and from a middle-school girl who got messages like: "Where did your mom get you those shoes? K-Mart?"
Other times, it's a website. Some circulate rumors, ask students to vote on the ugliest or fattest kid in school, or focus on one individual. When Will, a middle-schooler in Kansas, broke up with his girlfriend, she created a website devoted to smearing him.
She outlined vivid threats, made up vicious rumors, and described what it would be like to see him torn apart.
Photos are ammunition, too. Ted Feinberg, assistant director of the National Association of School Psychologists, often cites the young woman he met who had a falling out with a boy. In a fit of anger, he used photo-editing tools to paste her face onto a pornographic photo and sent it to his entire e-mail list.
"It was emotionally devastating for her," says Dr. Feinberg.
The perpetrator was known, at least, in situations like the previous two. In Will's case, his mother went to the principal, the website came down, and the girl got counseling and was transferred to another school.
In other cases, however, schools feel helpless. Free-speech rights can make it difficult to take down a website, bullies are often anonymous, and most of the harassment takes place off school property. After the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, many schools began looking at bullying as a serious problem, and some instituted zero-bullying policies. But cyberspace is a new territory, and schools aren't sure how far to extend their jurisdiction.
J. Guidetti, principal of Calabasas High School, did get involved, after comments on schoolscandals.com caused many of his students to be depressed, angry, or simply unable to focus on school.
"It might have been happening off campus," says Mr. Guidetti, "but the effects carry on into the school day.... Our school had the most postings of any school in southern California. It became a snowball effect, like a real-life soap opera. It became this culture of its own, and got very hurtful very quickly."
The site has more than 30,000 members and any student can post a message. Guidetti first looked at schoolscandals.com after hearing about it from a parent. He was shocked to find some blatantly racist comments, threats, and even references to lynching certain students.
His next step was a series of meetings - with parents, students, and faculty - to keep everyone informed. But getting the site stopped, he learned, wasn't easy. Talking to law-enforcement officials led nowhere; there are few rules governing what can get posted on the Internet.
Eventually, a local radio station got involved and put enough pressure on the people running the site - a father-son duo - that they took it down in the spring. Already, there's a schoolscandals2 - relatively harmless, so far. Guidetti checks it regularly for offensive content, one of the ever-growing tasks of a 21st-century principal.