Cyberbullying at Montgomery schools raises alarm -- Gazette.Net


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Maryland creates cyberbullying law

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last week targeting cyberbullies by making it illegal to threaten or emotionally abuse a child via “interactive computer services” such as Facebook and Twitter.

The bill was nicknamed Grace’s Law after Grace McComas, a 15-year-old Howard County student who committed suicide in 2012 after reportedly enduring months of cyberbullying.

It makes such threats a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of either one year in prison, a fine of up to $500, or both.

The legislation was adopted unanimously by both the House and Senate.

“This law sends a strong message that although sticks and stones may break your bones, words can also kill, and we will not allow bullies to assault us with their harmful or hateful words,” Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, the bill’s lead House sponsor, said in a statement.

— Daniel Leaderman

In the last month, some Montgomery County students have made threats to school safety, harassed their principals and teachers, made racial comments and bullied their peers — yet some of them have gone unpunished.

Principals, parents and police say they can do only so much when the comments are being made anonymously on Twitter.

Following a nationwide trend, students in Montgomery County Public Schools have created anonymous Twitter accounts to post thoughts about their schools and classmates. Many tell their peers to send them comments they want posted on their page through a profile they create on another social media site, such as Ask.fm.

It’s one of the newest outlets students are using to cyberbully, or harass one another electronically. Cyberbullying is a concern nationwide; Maryland just passed a law making cyberbullying a crime.

Although some of the local accounts have been around for more than a year without harm, a few created in the last few months are putting their school communities on edge.

“I brought a gun to school and thought about murdering all of u 1 by 1 but then I was just like nahh,” wrote @GBURGconfession, a Twitter feed about Gaithersburg High, on March 12.

For that particular tweet, the school was able to identify the student involved and talked to the student and parent, Gaithersburg Principal Christine Handy-Collins said.

Administration at Gaithersburg, Poolesville and Seneca Valley high schools have called in police and the school system’s cyber security team to help investigate serious postings, but principals at the schools say that because the accounts are anonymous, they sometimes cannot figure out who is involved.

The Gazette found 12 well-followed accounts for Montgomery County schools, some of them negative and others positive: @PHSConfession, @Poolesvillefact, @Woottonproblems, @GBURGconfession, @SVConfessions, @moco_truths, @commonchurchill, @overheardinCHS, @acommonwjgirl, @commonpylegirl, @Northwesttruths and @NWcrushes.

“i called the cops on all those freshmen who got busted #sorry #WoottonConfessions,” wrote @woottonproblems on March 4. That account has not mentioned individual students.

The @SVConfessions account mentioned several specific students, naming the “Top 5 senior bitches,” and “Top 5 biggest douche bags” in March 6 and March 18 tweets. As of this week, this account no longer could be found.

The @GBURGconfession account called out Handy-Collins and other staff in numerous tweets with sexual comments.

The @CommonChurchill account on Tuesday tweeted, “we don’t cyberbully,” although at least one previous tweet commented on a specific teacher.

Principals are taking different approaches to combat accounts they find offensive, which they say are changing the culture at their schools.

“It’s certainly not ‘Trojan Pride is on the rise,’” Handy-Collins said.

Much of what is being said on the accounts is cyberbullying, although the comments might not single out students, said Sameer Hinduja, who runs the online cyberbullying research center Cyberbullying.us.

It’s stereotyping, he said.

For example, @PHSConfession, which talks about Poolesville High, on March 12 published a racially tinged criticism of students blocking the halls. As of last week, this account no longer could be found.

Hinduja has talked to students nationwide who have created these accounts to use them in both positive and negative ways. It is a creative outlet that allows students to unburden themselves and find common ground with one another, he said.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to teens, it comes to devolve into an environment where they can whine and complain … just because they are struggling with their identity and want to belong,” Hinduja said.

State elected officials are trying to add consequences to cyberbullying. The Maryland General Assembly passed a cyberbullying law last week that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison, or a fine of up to $500, or both. The law takes effect Oct 1.

Even though the cyberbullying law is not yet in effect, Steve Chaikin, head of community prosecution for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the students still could be charged with other offenses, such as harassment, misuse of electronic mail, or the general crime of “disturbing school activities,” Chaikin said.

“Students and young people have created a new and alarming way to torment people — the laws have just started catching up,” Chaikin said.

Although students might consider themselves anonymous, police have ways around that, he said.

“You may think you’re alone in your basement and no one will know what you’re doing, but it’s very easy for police to find out who you are and what you’re doing,” Chaikin said.

@Montgomery schools

The Gazette reached out to all of the active accounts mentioned, in a message or tweet.

Several accounts responded, but only one creator agreed to go on the record.

Eli Berman, the creator of @overheardinCHS and a senior at Winston Churchill High, revealed his identity, stating that most of his classmates know he is behind the account anyway.

After starting his account last January as a way to share common thoughts with classmates, Berman said he is disappointed with other, negative accounts.

He explained that his account, which he and a few friends run, does not point out individual students, and he tries to keep it positive.

“1: My iPhone is acting suckish.” “2: So just use your other one ...,” @OverheardInCHS wrote on Feb. 2, 2012.

Berman said all he wants is to make people laugh; the anonymity added a mystique.

Berman’s mother, Beth Berman, said she has known about the account since he started it. Social media can be used correctly, she said.

“I don’t think the issue is the Twitter accounts. I think the issue is the children,” Berman said.

Making it stop

Montgomery County Public Schools does not have a separate program for cyberbullying, but there is a protocol in place for schools to follow, said Ursula Hermann, the school system’s director of student services.

There is a lot that the school system cannot control with social media, but principals can address the culture at their schools, Hermann said.

“How is what they are doing at their schools cultivating an environment where they feel safe?” Hermann said.

Principal Marc Cohen of Seneca Valley High and Principal Deena Levine of Poolesville High both sent letters to their school community that notified parents of the cyberbullying and reminded students of the dangers of social media.

Gaithersburg High parents will talk about this at the next PTSA meeting, said Deanna Duff, PTSA president.

“I think everyone is trying to play catch-up with the kids,” Duff said. “Our kids are so smart and so tech savvy. It is just a reality of our culture.”

Adults should learn to embrace new technology, and guide students how to use it properly, Hinduja said.

“It is about not vilifying technology and saying we want you to stop using it,” Hinduja said. “It is [the students’] life.”

To combat hurtful posts on @SVConfession, Cohen used his own Twitter account, @marcjcohen, to tweet to @SVConfession with statistics about bullying and suicide, asking the posters to stop.

“Some would say the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore the bully, but in my case, as principal, I needed to have a visible presence,” he said, adding that he was blocked from @SVConfession before it eventually was closed.

Cohen, Levine and Handy-Collins believe that those posting and sending their comments to the accounts make up a small few of their thousands of students.

“The majority of our students are aware of the ill effects of bullying and don’t engage in that type of behavior,” Levine wrote in her letter.

Some students, sickened by negative accounts, have taken on their peers through other accounts such as @SHScompliments at Sherwood High, and @RHSappreciation at Rockville High.

The HERO club at Poolesville High made a YouTube video about the negative effects of cyberbullying after the anonymous accounts took off there.

Handy-Collins has been working to regain morale among her staff, some of whom were upset with what they read about themselves on the account, she said.

Some want the inappropriate accounts shut down, and some of them have been.

But when one account shuts down, another one begins.

After @NWcrushes and @PHSconfessions stopped tweeting last week, @Northwesttruths and @PHScon started, filled with raunchy references to students and staff.

Staff Writers Daniel Leaderman and St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.

jbondeson@gazette.net