Father appeals to students to stop cyberbullying
By THATCHER MOATS Times Argus Staff | November 07,2008
MONTPELIER ó At a conference on cyberbullying Thursday, a middle school student told a story that shows how modern technology has brought new dimensions to an old problem.
"A girl in our school was in the locker room changing and another girl asked to use a cell phone, but she actually videotaped her changing and put it on YouTube and told everyone about it," said Kristin Place, a middle-school student at the Hinesburg Community School.
At the conference, which was held in Montpelier and attended by about 300 middle and high school students from around Vermont, organizers tried to teach students to recognize and combat such actions, known as ''cyberbullying.''
John Halligan of Essex Junction was the keynote speaker at the conference, and he knows just how tragic the results of cyberbullying can be. His 13-year-old son killed himself after being bullied online.
Halligan told the assembled students that it was up to them to stop cyberbullying.
"I strongly believe that the answer is really among yourselves. The adults cannot fix this problem. The young people in this room are really the key," he said.
Text messages, online chat rooms, e-mail, social networking Web sites, and ubiquitous camera-phones have created infinite ways to harass other people, and students learned about some of the different types of cyberbullying.
There's "happy slapping," in which an unsuspecting person is physically assaulted and then the fight is posted online. There's "impersonation," in which a person's e-mail account is broken into and messages are sent from the account that embarrass them or get them in trouble. And there's old-fashioned harassment, fighting and gossip through online forums.
There are key differences between simpler forms of bullying and cyberbullying, which can sometimes lead to greater psychological and emotional damage, said Phil Fogelman, an education director with the Anti-Defamation League, which sponsored the conference.
"The impact can be much more devastating socially and emotionally because it stays with the individual wherever he or she goes. It's everywhere," said Fogelman. "You can't just shut the computer off because everyone can access those videos or pictures."
In addition, the victims often don't know who is doing the cyberbullying, Fogelman said. With traditional bullying, the bully can be avoided, he said, but that can become tougher when the victim doesn't know who the bully is.
"With online bullying, the kid goes back to school and he doesn't know who at the school has done this," said Fogelman. "It's very indirect, and that's one of the reasons it is so difficult to address."
Addressing the problem was the point of the conference, and kids were taught to recognize the cyberbullying and then become "allies."
Most of the students said that when they encountered cyberbullying they tried to remain uninvolved.
Instructors said it was important not to participate, but also said being a bystander is not enough. Students were urged to report cases of cyberbullying to an adult.
"Bystanders are not exactly positive," said Kelsey Jensen, an 11th-grade student from Champlain Valley Union High School, who was a peer instructor at the conference. "They're not as bad as perpetrators, but they're not helping the situation."
An ally could have helped Halligan's son Ryan.
Halligan told the students he had no idea his son was being harassed online until after he died in 2003.
He thought the bullying had subsided in the eighth grade, when Ryan's tormenter appeared to have befriended him. But after logging onto his son's computer, Halligan learned the other boy spread a rumor around the school that Ryan was gay.
And a girl pretended to like Ryan online as a joke.
"In the end, my son really died from an illness. That illness, I believe, was depression, which came about from a series of events which started all the way back in the fifth grade, and it was like a snowball rolling down a hill that got bigger and bigger and bigger and became a boulder and just took him over," Halligan said.
His story made the students think twice about online communications.
"After hearing Ryan's story, it just goes to show how much one thing, one sentence, can do to hurt a family just like that," said Jed Sass, 13, of Hartford.
"It really makes you think how serious something like that could end up being," said Casey Ostler, 12, of Hartford.