BANGOR, Maine — Though bullying has existed for millennia, the advent of such recent innovations as the Internet, social networking sites, instant messaging and text messaging has taken the problem to new levels, including here in Maine.
Cyberbullying, defined as teasing, harassing or intimidating someone by means of technology, has become a nationwide problem for educators and students who are victims of it.
Last month, cyberbullying was cited as the cause of the suicide of a Rutgers University student, who jumped to his death from a bridge after his roommate and another student posted surreptitiously recorded webcam footage showing him engaging in sex with a man.
In 2008, a 13-year-old Missouri girl hanged herself after receiving messages on MySpace purportedly from a teenage boy who wooed her and then dumped her. An adult woman was found guilty of playing a part in the hoax, but the conviction was overturned.
In a report early this month, The Associated Press turned up 12 cases in the United States since 2003 in which children and young adults between 11 and 18 killed themselves after being victimized by forms of cyberbullying.
Closer to home
Though Maine has not seen reports of suicides attributed to cyberbullying, police say text messaging was a factor in a fight Sept. 28 at Hermon High School involving two 14-year-old girls, one of whom was taken to a hospital with serious injuries.
Threats delivered via My-Space, Facebook and text messaging are said to have played a role in the January shooting death of 19-year-old John “Bobby” Surles on Cumberland Street in Bangor.
Because of text messaging and cell phones, local teens — and some parents — knew the names of the victim and suspect even before that information was released by police.
In a recent interview, Hermon High School Principal Brian Walsh said technology is making it more difficult for educators to monitor bullying because much of it takes place off campus.
“It makes it a lot harder,” he said, noting that cyberbullying largely takes place when teachers and other school officials aren’t present.
Despite the school’s efforts to maintain a safe environment, what occurs off campus often is beyond educators’ ability to manage, Walsh said.
Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb agrees.
“The whole digital world has complicated [matters]. I think the part that makes it so difficult with young people is that back when you and I went to school when there may have been a disagreement, you went your separate ways. You got on the bus, you went home, then it stopped. But with the digital world, it’s constant, so in-vasive,” she said in an interview this week.
“When people can sit at a computer by themselves, they for whatever reason are more likely to do something than when they can pick up on tone and body language and all of those things they see face to face with someone,” she said.
The Internet and other recent technological advances, however, allow people to bully anonymously.
“They make up a name. Even at some of the sites where you have to register, they just make up a name,” Webb said.
Even after school officials become aware of cyberbullying, there’s often little they can do about it, she said.
“It’s hard for us as administrators to determine how you handle it,” Webb said.
When bullying takes place on school grounds, educators have a clear sense of what steps they can take to address it, but when it comes to bullying by text or social networking, Webb said, things become less clear.
“We don’t have authority over the Internet. The lines get blurry about the freedom of speech and that kind of thing,” she said. “And there have been cases that have come down on both sides throughout the nation — if they can show an impact on the school setting or not — so it makes it tricky.”
Furthermore, according to an online roundup of state laws compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maine lacks a statute specifically targeting cyberbullies, though they can be prosecuted under existing harassment and stalking laws. A proposed bill that would have required school boards to adopt cyberbully-ing policies and penalties died in 2009.
“So really, we’re looking at harassment, and bullying certainly can be a part of harassment,” Webb said.
Like other schools in Maine, Hermon High and Bangor High have resources in place for dealing with bullying.
Both have social workers, guidance counselors, teachers and other professionals who are available to students who feel threatened or unsafe at school.
Walsh said another asset at Hermon High is Shelley Gavett, who teaches health and conflict resolution and each fall organizes Challenge Day activities for 10th-graders.
Challenge Day, conducted at schools across the nation, exposes students to positive ways of living, according to published reports.
It works to prevent bullying by creating connections and support among participants, inspiring them to help foster compassion, acceptance and respect through a series of games, activities, group discussions, icebreakers and trust-building exercises.
Webb said Bangor has two school resource officers who are members of the Bangor Police Department.
“They are wonderful because by having the dual role, they can [determine] if a law has been broken or if someone is harassing someone” in a manner that is against the law, she said.
When school officials do become aware that cyberbullying is taking place, “we try to do what we do with any students who are struggling with controversy,” Webb said. “We have guidance counselors, we have teachers, we have social workers, we have people to support the student and the family. But like I said, some of it can be difficult if it’s outside of the school setting.”
Educators like Webb also say it is difficult to get a handle on the frequency of cyberbullying among students.
“I don’t have good data on that because of the blurred boundaries,” she said. “It really is a societal problem, and I think we have to think about how we can all work together to give the message to young people that this is not appropriate, really, anywhere, because this is so hurtful.”
Recent headlines about cyberbullying and its harmful effects on young people make two performances of “The Secret Life of Girls” by The Acadia Hospital and the Penobscot Theatre Company especially relevant.
In a letter to parents, Bangor Assistant Superintendent Donna Wolfram described the play as “an honest, unflinching dramatization of teenage angst in which a window is opened into the tumultuous and destructive world of bullying. … Playwright Linda Daugherty has created an up to the minute script that covers issues includ-ing texting and cyber-bullying.”
The Penobscot Theatre Company will stage a free performance of the play at the Bangor Opera House at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Tickets are free but must be reserved by calling Penobscot Theatre Company’s box office at 942-3333.
On Tuesday, the play will be performed for Bangor middle-schoolers during the school day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.