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Published: Monday, 11/7/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Parents, schools often stymied when bullying jumps to cyberspace

Victims have few choices for redress

BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tom Robbins, who saw the 'I Hate' Facebook page against his 13-year-old daughter in late October, says he was concerned it was a continuation of neighborhood bullying. The page was taken down after Whitehouse school officials became involved. Tom Robbins, who saw the 'I Hate' Facebook page against his 13-year-old daughter in late October, says he was concerned it was a continuation of neighborhood bullying. The page was taken down after Whitehouse school officials became involved.
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When Tom Robbins saw the "I Hate" Facebook page targeting his 13-year-old daughter in late October, he said he felt pure anger at first, and then his emotions turned to sadness.

His seventh-grade daughter said the Web site didn't bother her -- she was too laid back, keeping her emotions in and shying away from any drama -- which made Mr. Robbins worry about her more.

"How much can a kid take?" Mr. Robbins said about his daughter, an Anthony Wayne Junior High student, who was also bullied last year in her neighborhood.

The private Facebook page, he feared, was a continuation of a neighborhood spat with her classmates. He said he wondered if his daughter was picked on because she was held back in fourth grade and has a slight speech impediment.

After complaining to school officials, Mr. Robbins said he is upset that more action hasn't been taken against those in the Facebook group.

As schools deal with more cyber-bullying on Facebook and Twitter as well as in text messages, the middle school period -- rarely known as the golden years in one's life -- is even tougher. But for officials, the challenge is cracking down when mean-spirited messages are written outside school grounds.

In Ohio, prosecuting young people for these kinds of Facebook messages is difficult, especially where there are no anti-cyber-bullying laws, Lori Olender, supervisor of the juvenile division at the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, said.

It also becomes a freedom-of-speech issue because people are writing their opinions, Ms. Olender said.

As Kevin Gorman, a Perrysburg school administrator, said, the legal situation with cyber-bullying "is really somewhat uncharted waters."

That's not reassuring for frustrated parents and their bullied children who can't escape ridicule at school when they come home because comments about them have been posted on the Internet.

"The school isn't doing anything. The police [aren't] doing anything. We're not doing anything -- we can't," Ms. Olender said. "We can't help but feel bad when you turn somebody away because there's nothing on the books [to prosecute]."

At Anthony Wayne schools, administrators deal with the problem by talking with the students and their parents, Superintendent Jim Fritz said.

School administrators direct parents to contact law enforcement if children feel they're being harassed or threatened, because the school lacks the legal authority to punish students who cyber-bully each other off school grounds, he said.

"If two kids get into a fight at McDonald's, we wouldn't suspend the students for that," Mr. Fritz said.

The situation is the same for cyber-bullying, he said.

But in northwest Ohio, other schools handle cyber-bullying differently and have stronger penalties in place.

In Toledo and Perrysburg public schools, officials said they look at each incident and punishments could range from as mild as talking with parents or detentions to as severe as suspensions or expulsions.

"If somebody is being bullied, we intervene immediately. The district has a zero tolerance for bullying. But with zero tolerance, you have to look at it case by case," Mr. Gorman, executive director of pupil services at Perrysburg, said. "You can't have a one size fits all."

In the case of Mr. Robbins, after the school got involved, the private Facebook page was shut down, and Mr. Robbins filed a report with the Whitehouse Police Department last week.

Whitehouse police Officer Brad Baker, who is under contract with Anthony Wayne schools, typically investigates about a dozen cyber-bullying cases a school year.

"We have a lot of issues with Facebook, people supposedly talking bad about each other. In the hands of small children, Facebook isn't the greatest thing in the world," Officer Baker said. "It's petty stuff. I equate it to kids writing a note. … Now, it's on Facebook, and other people can see that note."

And it spreads like wildfire.

The district tries to educate about the consequences of cyber-bullying. Last year, Anthony Wayne offered a class for parents, who might not have had a computer in their classrooms growing up, on technology and cyber-bullying. When school started this year, the district held an anti-bully assembly for students.

But as in the case of Mr. Robbins' daughter, there's not much Officer Baker can do.

Officer Baker said he does not plan to pursue criminal charges against the student who started the Facebook page or the eight middle school and junior high school students who joined it.

There are no threats of violence, and none of the problems carried over into the classroom, he said.

Reducing cyber-bullying needs to start with better parental supervision, Officer Baker said.

Parents should know their children's passwords on social media sites and regularly monitor their online activities, he said.

"Tell your kids, 'You shouldn't have anything on there that you'd be embarrassed for me to see anyway,' " Officer Baker said.

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.



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