By David Ruderman, USAG Vicenza Public AffairsNovember 16, 2012
VICENZA, Italy -- The stories are all over the Internet: fear, anxiety and demoralization, spoofed identities, teen suicides. It's bullying in the digital age and it's here in Vicenza, too.
"Cyberbullying is a real thing," said one Vicenza High School senior. "People do get hurt over it. Words do hurt people and words make kids do crazy things."
Informal conversations with VHS students indicate that while few have experienced Internet bullying themselves, almost all are aware of it happening.
"Not particularly in my life, but in other kids' lives," said another senior. "They harass each other through like email and like Facebook so yes, it does have an effect."
"I've seen it online," said a junior at the school. "I've seen people posting stuff about other people, saying like so-and-so is this and this, and mentioning their name or tagging them in a post. I've seen that, but I've never experienced it personally."
The pervasive, yet elusive nature of the Internet form of bullying has prompted an active discourse over the past several years among educators. Part of the response has centered on analyzing and educating students about the occasional negative behavior that new media has made possible, and part has been to develop a variety of mechanisms for keeping it in check and sanctioning abuse.
"The problem comes in when students feel that they can lash out in some way and be mean and hurtful to another student," said Vicenza Middle School counselor Carol Kabonick who, along with school psychologist Diana Vidrini, is co-chair of the USAG Vicenza Anti-Bullying Task Force.
"And that creates a big, big problem because the kids normally would not say it face to face, so it's easier for them to say it online. And it might happen outside of school, but the repercussions of that kind of activity always spill over into the school day," she said.
"We talk about cyberbullying, but cyberbullying is kind of like gossip," said VHS principal Lauri Kenney.
"When you tell one person, they're going to tell somebody else and they're going to tell somebody else. They don't realize the person on the other end, they don't know how they're feeling. Cyberbullying is not about how you feel, it's about how that other person takes it . . . it's how the other people who see it react, and that's when people come to us," she said.
"It's the emotions that come afterwards that we have to deal with. And people don't know when to stop. What happens with Facebook or what happens with emails is, people read it over and over, so then they start believing it. It's like an abused spouse or an abused child," Kenney said.
"They don't see the reaction that you would see in a face-to-face interaction," said Kabonick.
"If you can't say something out loud, you probably shouldn't be typing it. Or if you can't say something twice, there's probably something wrong with it," said Vidrini.
"When you press that send button, you don't see it and it's kind of like, it's done and nothing happens. For the ones that get reported there are repercussions, but for how many bullying instances that get reported, how many are not reported? So many times people hit that send button and there are no repercussions," Vidrini said.
This can lead to a snowballing effect which sometimes spills over into the schools, as it did last year at VMS.
"A handful of young ladies, mostly," said school principal Dr. Julio Gonzalez. "What we found with the Internet cyberbullying was mostly with the personal accounts from home that ended up here. They were not school accounts."
"They were cyberbullying each other on a hotmail or a gmail account, and that hurt feelings and behavior comes to us," said VMS educational technologist Debra Wilson. "They start fighting or have inappropriate exchanges in here, and then Ms. Kabonick will bring them in and find out there's been cyberbullying going on at home, that kind of thing."
"From the home or sometimes from the community," said Gonzalez. "We found out that some of them were accessing the Youth Center, the library . . . but here we don't have that access. Here we just get what goes on at home."
Kenney said school administrators must find the right balance between protecting the educational endeavor of the school and respecting the due process rights of individual students.
"When it's done outside the school, it's not the responsibility of the school to handle the situation. But we also cannot ignore the situation if it's brought to our attention," she said.
"If we find that it is happening in school, then we follow our consequence pattern, which can lead to detentions or suspensions. Because we just don't tolerate it. If students bring it to us, we can't ignore them either," said Kenney.
"All those things that happen at 9, 10 o'clock at night, and on the weekends: it's brought to our attention because we have the rule book. Sometimes it never really reaches school. Sometimes people never even talk about it at school," she said.
Even so, the schools remain the center of young people's social lives, including their virtual socializing, and educators remain on alert for indicators of bullying, ready to intervene if necessary.
"We want kids to come out of school at the end of the school day and continue at home feeling good about themselves, their accomplishments and their friendships," said Kabonick.
ENLISTING PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT
Educators in Vicenza are actively enlisting parents to support their efforts.
"It's our responsibility as adults to monitor children and to teach them. Not to be punitive, but in a teaching and protective way that alerts youngsters to the dangers out there in cyberspace," said DoDDS-Europe director Dr. Nancy Bresell.
"We focus more on the kids, teaching them about bullying and having empathy for one another," said Kabonick. "Trust and respect. We try to really talk to kids about what the expectations are for us here at school and for just proper conduct as they're growing up and being a citizen in the future. So it's an ongoing conversation that we have with kids."
There are differences with the current generation of students, who have grown up on Facebook and texting, that create challenges for parents to exercise their traditional oversight, said educators.
"Our point of reference for how kids behave toward each other is from what we know, when we were younger. Kids today have a totally different set of rules," said Kabonick.
"I think that bullying in any form needs to be stopped, but people in Vicenza, for the most part, don't seem to be so evil about it and posting right to someone's page," said one VHS senior.
"Mostly what I've seen is a lot of girls who either post on Facebook, tearing themselves down, or I've seen cyberbullying more in a private setting: maybe two or three people in a message bashing someone else," she said.
"That's the main issue that we have here: Facebook," said Gonzalez, the middle school principal. "One of the bigger items of concern lately is that students share their username/password credentials, and that's a huge no-no. As friendships evolve and end, often on bad terms, this open and unhindered access to another's Facebook page can result in misuse and even abuse."
"Especially at this age group, where you can't count on that friendship," said Wilson, the educational technologist. "We want friendships to last forever, but you can't always count on it."
"They don't," said Gonzalez.
Facebook can be an issue for youngsters, regardless of their age, said Wilson. Even for children without accounts, they have friends who do and a vicarious access through them. Spoofing and stealing online identities can become a major issue, as it is in the adult online world, she said.
In addition to the traditional mission of instilling positive values in children, today's teachers also have to ensure that parents are both aware of the possible pitfalls of online behavior, and capable of taking charge of their children's communication activity as necessary, said educators.
"Parents need to monitor their students, their children at home," said Kenney, the high school principal.
"They need to be able to get on to their own children's Facebook, the instant messaging, whatever the gadgets are out there right now or the program that's out there right now. They need to access it, because it's not just on their computers, it's also on their phones. That can also promote cyberbullying so parents need to monitor that."
"Students that have these online accounts are basically using them unmonitored for unlimited amounts of time," said Kabonick.
Some parents think it's inconceivable that their children would behave in a negative way . . . until they do.
"Sometimes when students get in high school, parents have a tendency to back off, which I don't think they should. They think they're old enough to take care of themselves sometimes," Kenney said.
"I think a lot of parents don't think about it because you get into the humdrum of your daily lives. 'My 16-year-old is a very responsible girl -- why should I be checking on her?' You're trustful," said Vidrini, the school psychologist.
"A big part of that is also the adults modeling the type of behavior that we expect from the kids. We want to be there, showing them that we as adults treat each other with respect, and that if there is a problem, we are going to be there to help them out," said Kabonick.
Fortunately, some parents are already way ahead of the curve.
"The main concern is, I guess, clearing history when they go on the Internet," said Barbara James, who has a fourth-grade son and seventh-grade daughter in the Vicenza schools. She, not the children, is the only one allowed to clear their Internet history files. If they violate that rule, James takes them offline for a month.
She also limits the time her children can spend online, puts their devices out of reach at night and only returns them the next day, once they have finished their homework, she said.
So far, her approach has been working.
"I'm trying to help them because I have talked to them that they are the only ones who will control them when they become adults: so self-control actually should start now. And I don't have to control them once they learn to control themselves. So that's a form of maturity," said James.
"If they are mature enough, they will have more privileges. So I tell them that you are the one that's standing in the door of freedom: if you don't comply with the standards, then you shut the door on a lot of opportunities and you shut the door on your freedom, so you need to go and make it happen and be free by using your self-control," she said.