School, police keep tabs on cyber bullying

A month ago, Lori Drew of Missouri was acquitted of charges related to the suicide of her daughter’s former friend, 13-year-old Megan Meier.

Meier hanged herself in 2006 after Drew pretended to be a 16-year-old boy on MySpace and later AOL instant messenger. Drew sent complimentary messages at first, then switched to a hateful tone.

Threats, teasing, spreading rumors or posting altered photos through text messages, instant messages, e-mail or on social networking sites such as and are a growing trend among Internet-savvy teens and preteens, Patricia Agatston explained during her hourlong presentation to more than 200 educators and law enforcement officers Tuesday at a Colorado Safe Schools Regional Training seminar in Grand Junction.

Agatston, a Georgia resident and co-author of “Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age,” said 18 percent of teen students surveyed said they’d been bullied over the Internet or by cell phone in the past two months. Another 11 percent said they had cyber bullied someone else at least once.

Although some students at Grand Junction High School said after class Tuesday that bullying isn’t prevalent at the school, others said they’ve seen at least a mild form of it online.

“If anything, it’s joking around. It’s not serious,” Jamie Derrieux, 15, said.

Not all cyber bullying is direct, 16-year-old Julie Essman said.

“On MySpace, people will leave comments about someone on another person’s page,” Essman said.

Victoria Davis, 16, said she doesn’t get involved in cyber bullying, whether it’s to defend a classmate or spread nasty messages further through cyberspace.

“I ignore it,” she said.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department has taken notice, and school resource officers now include cyber bullying in their roster of discussion topics for classes.

Cyber bullying increases most noticeably in sixth and seventh grades, according to Agatston. Girls are the most likely victims and are most likely to send or receive cyber bullying messages.

Victims often have higher rates of absenteeism, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol use and illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized cyber bullying as an emerging risk to youth health because it can be so hard on kids emotionally and mentally that it sometimes leads to depression, anxiety and even physical ailments.

“For some kids who are targeted at school and out of school, it can be a nightmare. They don’t feel like they have a break,” Agatston said.

John Halligan of Vermont has spoken at more than 100 schools about the suicide of his 13-year-old son, Ryan Halligan, in 2007. The younger Halligan had been teased at school and bullied online.

Before his death, a classmate pretended to be interested in him romantically. She then forwarded his instant message responses to all of her friends.

Agatston recommended that parents tell their children how to report cyber bullying to school administrators (some even have a form on school Web sites to fill out after an incident) and discuss Internet etiquette.

Agatston said parents should not punish the victim by taking away a cell phone or computer, but instead talk with the parents of the kids involved, watch for signs of bullying and supervise online behavior without invading privacy barriers.

Not all cyber bullying stories end in tragedy. Olivia Gardner, a 14-year-old who switched schools three times in California to avoid bullies, became suicidal after kids sent mean messages to her and about her online after she had a seizure in class. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the bullying, and two girls in another county started a letter-writing campaign to cheer the girl up. The multiple letters have been bound in a book, “Letters to a Bullied Girl.”


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