MSU Billings News Services
Like a tornado that tears apart a normally quiet afternoon, bullying is an issue that has capacity to rip apart families, schools and communities. It can happen quickly and few people believe it can actually happen here.
But bullying — in person and in cyberspace — is a real, local issue that needs to be addressed as a community, participants in a two-day conference at Montana State University Billings were told on Monday.
In partnership with Billings Public Schools, MSUB’s second annual Safe Schools Safe Communities Conference is designed to provide local solutions bullying issues that are becoming more prevalent in the age of Facebook frenzy and cell phone texts that fly at the speed of light.
“I’m hoping this conference can be used to begin a grassroots discussion on what’s going on and what needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Kim Gillan, a Democrat who represents the Billings Heights. “It’s important to address it and not wait until there’s a disaster.”
Gillan, who is a holdover legislator and not up for election this fall, told the 100 people at the conference she has a bill draft reserved for the 2011 Montana Legislature that could be used to help address some of the solutions developed by conference attendees. It may not require establishing a new law, she said, but may mean providing more tools for schools or law enforcement.
“The people in this room will be the influencers to develop solutions,” she said. “Instead of proactive, it will be proactive.”
Parry Aftab, a New York attorney and national expert on cybercrime and cyberbullying issues who spent Monday guiding the conference participants through the different layers of the issues, encouraged people in Billings and Montana to look for creative, collaborative solutions. Waiting for the political process to work may take some time and the results are unpredictable, Aftab said. While legal solutions can eventually be beneficial, local ones are just as important.
“The solution may not be a new law,” said Aftab said. “The solution may not be more funding. The solution may be bringing all the stakeholders together where you look at all the different solutions, not just a new law, but something else while we’re waiting.”
State and city law enforcement experts, Billings school officials and counselors, parents and educators all talked Monday about different perspectives they have with dealing with bullying issues.
Scott Twito, a deputy county attorney for Yellowstone County, said cyber issues are important for prosecutors, but need to be addressed in a timely fashion. Jacob Pancheau, a recent Billings Senior High School graduate, said cyberbullying needs to be addressed because of the implications on overall student welfare in schools.
Presenting her case with a sense of urgency and a wealth of experience, Aftab talked Monday about the need to pay closer attention to bullying and intimidation that has moved from crowded hallways and playgrounds to the wide open spaces of the digital domain.
The key to dealing with cyberbullying, Aftab said, is understanding that children, teenagers and parents have to negotiate digitized drama instead of simple peer-to-peer intimidation that people normally equate with bullying. Adults need to remember that morals can’t be legislated and kids can’t be stopped from doing crazy kid-like things. And adults should remember that they can’t respond to modern risks with old-fashioned skills.
For example, she said, parents seem perfectly willing to let their kids figure out the video games, cell phones and other devices without checking on who their kids are communicating with and how far that communication reaches.
“We need to ask more. We need to demand more (in understanding popular technology tools),” she said. “It seems to be that when it comes to technology, we all get stupid.”
Recent studies and real-life situations back her up.
Many parents are purchasing cell phones for their kids for ease of contact, but one survey showed that among fourth-graders and fifth-graders, 85 percent say they have shared their passwords with their best friends while 70 percent say they have shared them with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
If someone gets a password, it’s a short step to access all kinds of information … and intimidation. And it can start as early as fourth grade.
“They all have secrets in fourth grade,” Aftab said, “and bullies recognize the power of those secrets. And unless you’re the big kid and a head taller than everyone else, others can use that power that could affect them far past the fourth grade.”
Until the past few years, national data on the prevalence of bullying in American schools have been largely unavailable. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, studies were instead conducted at the state, district or even individual school level, making general comparisons difficult. In 2002, however, the Families and Work Institute produced a report based on a nationally representative sample of 1,000 students in grades five through 12. Responses indicated that 32 percent of the sample had been bullied at least once in the month prior to the survey, and 12 percent had been bullied five times or more in the same time period.
Another survey of children by the Family and Work Institute showed that 66
percent had been teased or gossiped about “in a mean way” at least once in the month prior to the survey, and 25 percent reported being the object of cruel teasing or gossip five times or more in the same period.
Now that behavior is taking root in the digital realm and is harder to control.
Aftab spent the day Tuesday guiding conference participants in a process to develop local solutions that will address the complex issues of cyberbullying.
“We need a multi-stakeholder approach,” she said. “It’s the only way to deal with this. We’re all pioneers when it comes to these online issues.”