“Your face is like a baby seal. Fat, furry and just asking to be clubbed to death.”

A former Orono High School student faces felony terrorizing charges after allegedly sending this and dozens of other threats electronically to a 15-year-old former classmate. The case of suspected cyberbullying is extreme but not unique.

One in five high school students in Maine who responded to the 2009 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey reported having been the subject of harassment, threats or aggression via the Internet during the previous year. Females in ninth and 10th grades were most susceptible to cyberbullying, according to the survey.

Those figures align with national averages, according to Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, which has studied online bullying since 2002.

Although incidents such as the recent case involving past and current Orono High School students place cyberbullying in the spotlight, it does not reflect a spike in online harassment, he said. Despite teens’ increasing access to cellphones and online devices, the center’s research shows that the average number of young Americans who report being victims of electronic bullying has consistently hovered between 1-in-5 and 1-in-4 since 2004.

The rapidly evolving nature of Internet-based communication makes cyberbullying a moving target. To address that fact, the Legislature this year passed LD 1237, which addresses online harassment as part of an overall effort to reduce bullying.

As part of its push to take better advantage of online learning opportunities, the Maine Department of Education now encourages school systems to promote digital citizenship. Since July, all recipients of E-rate funds, which includes schools that use the Maine School and Library Network for Internet service, must enforce safety policies that “educate students about appropriate online behavior — including interaction on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and awareness and handling of cyberbullying.”

On its website, the department also offers resources to help prevent bullying. Local school districts continue to educate students and staff about cyberbullying and, as evidenced by the appropriate action taken by administrators at Orono High School and the southern Maine school that the girl charged with online terrorizing now attends, those efforts are paying off.

A comparison of state laws related to cyberbullying indicates that Maine state government and local school systems are ahead of most states in addressing the problem. So why hasn’t the frequency of cyberbullying decreased? And what more can be done?

Hinduja believes more attention should be focused on creating an environment that rejects cyberbullying — in schools and in the wider community.

In schools, that means working harder to cultivate a “culture of empathy” that extends beyond classrooms into cyberspace, he said, because technology makes it easier to factor conscience and morals out of communications. School systems that have experienced the greatest success in establishing a sense of “collectiveness” do so by enlisting students to lead the effort, he said.

Empathy must extend to those accused of cyberbullying. Because adolescents have yet to fully develop coping mechanisms for dealing with frustration, anger or jealousy, society must guard against scapegoating those accused of cyberbullying. In addition to punishing criminal behavior, efforts to prevent cyberbullying also must focus on what prompted the assault and how to encourage respectful communication regardless of the platform.

Importantly, adults must do everything possible to ensure that young people trust them enough to report troubling online communications. According to Hinduja, that requires parents to become more familiar and comfortable with their children’s online lives — and not assume that schools will take care of teaching digital citizenship.

Adults also must ease young people’s concerns about how they will react to a form of communication that wasn’t available to earlier generations. Better communication — in person and online — represents a valuable tool to prevent cyberbullying.