Technology can connect people of all ages across the world or right around the corner, and a computer is a wonderful thing - unless it is used to humiliate or harm a person.
Reports of cyberbullying - making another person's life miserable through email, texting or posting personally damaging material online - are on the rise nationwide. In 2009, more than seven million U.S. students ages 12 through 18- a third of all students in that age group - were physically or verbally bullied at school. Additionally, more than 1. 5 million students in that age group were taunted via cell phones and other wireless devices.
Statewide surveys show similar incidents of rising physical and electronic harassment. Results of a 2010 New York state survey of students ages 11 through 18 showed 18 percent had been physically bullied while on school property. Further, 16 percent were victims of cyberbullying either on or off school grounds.
Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Danita Curtis, shown this week at Nathan Littauer Hospital’s Decker Drive Center in Johnstown, says she’s heard from some patients that cyberbullying has affected their physical and emotional well-being. (The Leader-Herald/Lisa D. Connell)
Now, with the July 1 enactment of the state's Dignity Act - legislation protecting all public school students from physical bullying - comes the second arm of that law: curbing cyberbullying. A law to prevent the most insidious form of bullying through social media will take effect on July 1, 2013.
The need for the legislation is apparent, its advocates say. Cell phone cameras capture an act called "happy slapping" for uploading to the Internet. It's as though the world has gone mad with cruelty.
In one local incident, a medical practitioner describes how cyberbullying interferes with a student's academic progress. A student's classroom performance was so compromised by situational anxiety from the cyberbullying that she was enduring that she could not attend classes for a time, explained Danita Curtis, a nurse practitioner specializing in pediatrics at Nathan Littauer Hospital's Decker Drive Center in Johnstown.
Curtis said in her practice she has seen several instances of such anxiety. The legislation will support enforcement, she believes.
Cyberbullying has increased over the last several years.
"It's not appropriate to bash people on the Internet just because you've got some anonymity," she said. People bully to pump up their own self-worth, and "unfortunately, now have a new means to do that."
What makes cyberbullying so damaging to a young person's psyche is that the online poster can't see any cues to let him or her know that a line has been crossed.
"You can't see that you caused pain," said Curtis, who has 11 years of experience as a nurse practitioner in Fulton County.
During a face-to-face conversation, most people can pick up the nuances and listen to changes in tone of voice and sense the distancing occurring when a person feels hurt or slighted. In one case, Curtis said, a teen was not reading or seeing the online or electronic messages about her, but she learned about them from someone else.
"She didn't have access to this; it was told to her," Curtis recounted.
Many people today feel an immediate need to communicate - a need that never used to exist, said Curtis. She can see it on a patient's face when a cell phone's chime or buzz raises the young person's anxiety level because of the urgent desire to respond to the sound or sensation. It's as though the incoming electric ping or flash of an email or cell phone puts a young person on automatic pilot. He or she instinctively reaches for the cell phone to reply, even in the middle of an important personal appointment.
Curtis cautions youngsters to relax, not to split-second react.
"It will be OK. It's OK to let that go," she recalled saying to one young person as the patient's mobile phone sounded in her medical office.
Under the new law, it will be public school officials who cannot ignore the sounds of cellphones and students' social-media activity. School administrators and board of education members must know how to enforce legislation specific to online bullying.
In the Oppenheim-Ephrata Central School District, students will participate in Rachel's Challenge as part of an anti-bullying program, said Superintendent Dan Russom. The district is a member of the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES, which received a grant for Rachel's Challenge.
The antibullying program is named for Rachel Joy Scott, the first person killed during the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. As noted on its website, www.rachelschallenge.org, the program is designed to combat bullying in schools and businesses.
The program's message is straightforward: "We exist to inspire, equip and empower every person to create a permanent positive culture change in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion."
More people are aware of bullying, particularly cyberbullying, because of the increasing media coverage of the issue. It will be a group effort that combats the problem, Russom said.
Bullying in any form is an issue "we're not going to be able to solve without help from parents in our community," he said.
In Gloversville, the city district's school board is in the early stages of adopting measures to combat cyberbullying at its seven schools.
How far can an administrator go, legally, when it comes to researching reported instances of cyberbullying?
"It's a gray area and we need to know more," said Pete Semione, Gloversville's Board of Education president.
The cyberbullying legislation is aimed at strengthening "a school's response to harassment and bullying through improved reporting, investigation, intervention, training and prevention," according to a news release from the governor's office. "The new law requires schools to take action when students experience cyberbullying or other forms of harassment. It ensures that school districts take immediate steps to end harmful behavior, prevent recurrences and ensure the safety of the targeted students.
The legislation also establishes improved training to help teachers and administrators better prevent and respond to bullying and other harmful acts."
Combined with preparing students to meet increasingly rigorous standards in the classroom and teachers similarly under increased examination, administrators have a lot on their plates. Budget constraints affect every district, too.
The new law requires school districts to have a plan in place no matter their financial situation and staffing limits.
"We must do all we can to ensure that every child in New York state feels safe in the classroom, and this new law will help our schools create an environment that is conducive to educational success," Gov. Cuomo said on July 9, the day he signed the cyberbullying law. "Under this new law, schools will play an important role - working with families, communities and law enforcement - to prevent harassment, bullying and discrimination, and to support a student's right to learn ..."
"It's getting to be a very serious situation," Semione said of the growing nationwide response to bullying.
Gloversville schools' Interim Superintendent Cliff Moses said it could be that one person in each school building will be the designated counselor responsible for investigating reported cyberbullying or other forms of bullying.
Monitoring student computers at school for instances of cyberbullying is one task educators must fulfill.
School administrators and educators will be required to spend more time outside of their purview, the classroom. This concerns some academic leaders.
"It's not about the reporting piece, it's about the investigative piece," said Robert DeLilli, superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District, which has three elementary schools, a junior high school and a high school. Students have a plethora of electronic means with which to behave inappropriately, he said, from texting to "sexting," for instance. The new law will require educators to investigate off-campus cyberbullying as well as cases that happen in schools.
"We don't have the resources to do that," DeLilli said.
"We're not trained to be investigators," Moses said. "But the role of protecting our kids is vital."
Reporter Lisa D. Connell can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.