Grappling with Cyberbullying in One New York School

Bullying in New York City’s public schools is nothing new— but cyberbullying over social media is making conflicts harder to handle. New statistics from the Department of Education show a dramatic increase in cyberbullying. And the city’s lawyers, educators, and students are wrestling with how to deal with this. Sarah Gibson reports from one public school in Manhattan that’s taking a new approach.

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GIBSON: Students at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School are headed to their last class of the day. This school is unusual: diverse, small – with about 300 kids – and with a strict policy of no-cell-phones. But students go on social media after school. A group of eighth graders tries to guess how many hours they spend –
 
ALL: A day? Six?
DA: I’d say like six hours, six hours. Because most of the time they’re doing their homework but also texting their friends, and then when they go to bed they’re sitting in bed on their phone texting on social media—
DD: —until they fall asleep, yah, so.
 
GIBSON: With these hours online, teens see a lot of bullying. One of the most popular platforms for this is:
 
ALL: Instagram
 
DD: Instagram – some people take it too far sometimes because people post because you can comment.
 
GIBSON: Those comments get vicious and go on for paragraphs. And unlike the days when teens could only bully each other in person, these live online permanently, for the entire school to see. So what about Snapchat? It’s designed for messages to disappear – but it’s not safe either.
 
DD: Especially with snapchat this is the really the main platform for like sexting and posting inappropriate pictures of yourself, because they think it’s gonna go away after 24 hours, but lots of people are taking screen shots of it, talking to their friends about it, and it really doesn’t go away.
 
GIBSON4: Instead of going away – it comes back to school, in the form of fights and rumors. Eli Scherer teaches 8th grade here, and he leads group “circles” to help students work through conflict. He says bulliers often don’t see the harm they’re causing – He knows first-hand. 15 years ago he was a bit of a bully himself.
 
SCHERER: I actually remember creating a really mean website about a kid in our class. It’s actually really embarrassing to think back at that. It was starting to happen when we were kids but now it’s just everywhere.
 
GIBSON: Now, conflict gets exacerbated online. Scherer warns students to stay off social media after a fight. This just came up at a school dance:
 
SCHERER: As the kids were leaving the dance, a fight broke out – two girls screaming at each other face to face – um, very, very upset.
 
GIBSON: This was right before Spring break – Scherer pulled one of the girls aside.
 
SCHERER: One of the first thing I felt like I had to say to her was let’s breathe, let’s think about this. We’re about to have a week off, and the first and most important thing to do is: don’t put anything online. Because then I know a week later we’re going to have this like —what could be a small problem turns into a very very big problem.
 
GIBSON: A “big problem” that is well-documented. Students who are bullied do worse in school. They’re more likely to harm themselves, even commit suicide. To address this, schools in New York are now required to report and handle all cyberbullying. Ari Waldman is an attorney. He says the law includes a list to help schools understand common targets of cyberbullying:
 
WALDMAN: Ethnic background, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, appearance, disability….
 
GIBSON: Schools can face lawsuits for not protecting their students. But getting tough on cyberbullying also puts schools in a tricky legal spot. When Albany tried to pass stricter cyberbullying laws, the New York Supreme Court struck it down – saying it violated students’ free speech. Waldman says it’s a slippery slope.
 
WALDMAN: So you have legitimate concerns that should we give schools – which might not be run by the most enlightened faculty and administrators – Should we give them additional power to regulate what we say and how we interact? And that’s a tough call. There’s no doubt that this is not a slam dunk.
 
GIBSON: Over at the Lower Manhattan Middle School, dealing with conflict is a balancing act. To distinguish between “bullying” in the legal sense and just being mean, Eli Scherer has a simple tool.
 
SCHERER: We use the acronym “PAIN.” So bullying is four things: It’s power dynamics, it’s aggressive, (sound of bell) – a is for aggressive – it’s intentional.
 
GIBSON:That’s the school bell, so Scherer has to run. But the eighth-graders pick up the acronym at the I:
 
ALL: Intentional and numerous. So power, aggressive, intentional and numerous. Pain.
 
GIBSON: They say these guidelines have been really helpful. They’ll remember them when, next year, they head to high school – where smart phones and social pressure make bullying an even bigger problem.
 
Sarah Gibson, Columbia Radio News.

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