CARIBOU, Maine — The recent death of a Caribou student has the community thinking harder about ways to stop online abuse.
The increased number of popular social media sites has motivated the school to take steps to address cyberbullying within its community, said Caribou High School guidance counselor Rani Mehta. Though bullying is a longstanding issue, it has increased with the popularity of social media, especially among high school students, she said.
“We want kids to be more comfortable with coming to us when there’s an issue. Ultimately, that will make our school a safer place to be,” Mehta said.
To accomplish that, school administrators invited Aroostook law enforcement officials to the high school on Wednesday to give this message to students: Do your part as a community to protect your peers from online bullies and help your friends when they find themselves in those situations.
Chuck Ainsworth, special agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Houlton, guided students through topics such as the legal and emotional effects of predatory sexual behaviors and harrassment on youth. Much of that abuse and exploitation occurs online due to how easily predators can mask themselves with fake social media profiles, Ainsworth said.
Though he did not use the student’s name, Ainsworth referred to the recent death of a Caribou Community School student as one that resulted from cyberbullying.
The 14-year-old student died March 3. His obituary described him as someone who stood up for the vulnerable and those who were bullied, and his family asked for donations to support #stopbullying.
Ainsworth shared stories of cyberbullies who were imprisoned because of the actions of adults and students who decided to help the victims rather than the perpetrators.
Ainsworth’s colleague Gary Sanfacon, a juvenile corrections officer for Aroostook County, said he has seen youth convicted at the state or federal levels for sexual exploitation and related crimes. When youth engage in cyberbullying that results in those crimes, their behavior profoundly affects the victims and forever labels the offender as someone people should not trust, he said.
“These offenses that we’ve seen happen because someone disrespected somebody else — you have an opportunity to make sure you respect the people you associate with,” Sanfacon said.
Several of the students said Ainsworth’s and Sanfacon’s talks were powerful reminders of why they and their peers need to look out for each other.
“Instead of making people feel alone, we need to be their friends,” said junior Onyx Anderson.
“I think it’s important that people are aware of this issue and that there are ways people can help,” Junior Evan Dickinson said.