By Abby Jordan
Students do it with the click of a mouse or a few strokes on a cell phone key pad, by sending malicious e-mail or text messages, starting rumors online or posting taunts and insults on social networking sites.
Cyberbullying, as the practice is known, is getting more attention statewide following the Jan. 14 death of a South Hadley teen, Phoebe Prince, 15, who is believed to have committed suicide after being bullied online.
Massachusetts lawmakers last fall began working on an anti-bullying bill, now being drafted, and expect it to come out of committee in February and go before the House and Senate.
“The point is getting a strong anti-bullying bill passed so we can improve the climate in the schools, and to make sure a tragedy that happened in South Hadley a couple weeks ago doesn’t happen again,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton.
For MetroWest middle and high school students, cyberbullying is a reality, studies show, and whether legislation would help stanch the practice remains to be seen.
Results from the 2008 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey found that 16 percent of students surveyed in grades 7 to 12 had been bullied electronically in the 12-months prior to the fall 2008 survey.
The surveys, administered by the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation, were completed by 20,406 students from 22 high schools in the MetroWest area, and 10,650 seventh- and eighth-graders from 19 districts.
For high schoolers, 11 percent reported that they had bullied others electronically, and 7 percent said they were both victim and perpetrator. Nine percent of the middle school students reported they had bullied online.
More often than not, parents and teachers are unaware that cyberbullying is happening because it occurs out of eyesight and without sound on Internet Web sites and in e-mails and text messages, said Kevin Fox, a social worker at Framingham High School.
Students are also wary of telling an adult, fearing that it will make the bullying worse, said Fox.
“It’s really underground a lot of times,” he said. “A lot of times we don’t know about it until it really reaches a boiling point.”
While Fox said that simply passing a law against bullying and cyberbullying may not cause kids to stop harassing their peers, it could raise needed awareness about the problem among students and parents.
He hopes parents realize that it is a problem, and one they should be watching for to make sure their children aren’t victims or bullies.
“I think people within the home are the first defense – you have to monitor your child, know what sites they’re on and what they’re doing with technology.”
While vigilance by parents on monitoring their child’s behavior online is important, so too is alerting school officials when they discover hurtful messages or taunts online, he said.
“If we’re not aware of something that happened the night before, how can we help?”
Fox said students often try to ignore cyberbullying or get friends to help them go after the bully or bullies. Sometimes, it drives students, in particular young females, to self-mutilation.
“They’re hurting themselves,” he said. “It really snowballs into a horrific situation for a lot of kids.”
In Northborough, Melican Middle School assistant principal Michelle Karb said the district is focused this year on cutting down bullying and building a positive school culture, and formed the Teachers, Administrators and Students for Kids (TASK) group.
Lessons around tolerance and empathy have been going on in classrooms recently, including for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this week students heard a poignant message about bullying from the father of a teen who committed suicide after being cyberbullied.
John Halligan, of Vermont, spoke to students at Melican and Trottier Middle School in Southborough this week, and also to parents during night meetings, telling the story of his son, Ryan, 13, being bullied online before taking his own life.
“It’s easy to hide behind a computer screen or a cell phone and spread mean rumors because there is no way for anyone to stop it,” Halligan told the Melican students.
Karb said Halligan’s talk had a profound effect on students, many of whom cried during it, then talked in homeroom briefings afterward about how the anti-bullying message had hit home.
“Kids were really moved by the whole thing,” she said. “We want to try to empower the kids to take responsibility.”
One female student, crying, wrote a letter to Halligan, telling him she was one of the bullies, and that she vowed to stop. On Halligan’s Web site, many students signed a guest book, saying they appreciated his talk and that his story had touched them, and hopefully sparked change.
“As someone who has been bullied in the past and present, I truly hope that the people in our auditorium who listened to your speech truly take what you said to heart,” an anonymous commenter said.
Parents looking for more information on cyberbullying, Internet safety and how to understand and monitor a child’s online behaviors can attend a talk by Dr. Elizabeth Englander Tuesday, Feb. 2 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Weston Middle School, 456 Wellesley St.