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Youngsters may feel constantly harassed by threatening text messages or hurt by ugly posts on online bulletin boards, but fear keeps them from telling their parents.

“The reason they’re so reluctant to tell their parents is they’re afraid they’ll take away the technology, which is the last thing they want to happen because that’s how they connect with everybody in their world,” said Christine Harms, outreach coordinator for the Colorado School Safety Resource Center and EdNews Parent expert.

Parents and teachers have a lot to learn about the complex dynamics of bullying today, say experts in the field. While playground bullying may look much as it did a generation ago, that’s not even the half of it any more, and adults may not fully appreciate just how bullying has changed and how it may be impacting a child’s physical, emotional and academic health.

Upcoming conference to focus on changes in Colorado law

On Friday and Saturday, Sewall Child Development Center present its third annual Teaching Beyond “Normal” conference, and focus on bullying prevention through early intervention. The conference, open to the public, is at the Adams 12 Five-Star Schools Conference Center in Thornton, and cost to attend is $95 for one day or $150 for both days. (Go here for more information about the conference, including speakers and topics.)

Among the topics:

  • Cyberbullying
  • How to raise resilient and bully-proof children
  • How changes in the law – including new anti-bullying laws in Colorado and recent court rulings – may impact how schools handle bullying

“The question I get asked most often is ‘What’s different now?’” said Linda Kanan, director of CSSRC and another EdNews Parent expert. “Bullying happened when I was a kid. But what’s different is the persistence of the bullying and the nature of it, given the cyberworld.

“Years ago, going home at night was a haven of safety away from incidents that might happen with their peers at school,” she said. “Now, because of 24/7 communications, text messaging, Facebook and other online media, a lot of bullying goes on at home and into the night, all the time for kids. They can’t get away from it like they used to.”

A widespread but often undocumented phenomenon

Bullying remains, at best, a widespread but sometimes difficult to identify phenomenon among children. In Colorado, the only recent bullying data comes from the 2009 Healthy Kids Survey, which found that 19 percent of high school students report being bullied on school property.

“But we know that bullying goes down after the middle school years,” said Kanan. “Awhile back the Colorado Trust did some research and found up to 57 percent of kids grades five through 12 reported bullying.”

Particularly at risk of bullying are gay or lesbian youth, or those who are perceived as anything other than heterosexual. The Colorado School Climate Survey, taken in 2009 but just released last month by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, found that 97 percent of LGBT students reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school, 52 percent were pushed or shoved because of their sexual orientation, and 30 percent said they’d been physically assaulted.

Schools have a moral, legal obligation to intervene

In July, a California school district, the Tehachapi Unified School District in Kern County, near Bakersfield, became the first school district in the nation forced to settle with the U.S. Justice and Education departments after federal officials found it violated the civil rights of a 13-year-old gay student by failing to stop persistent bullying of the boy. The boy eventually committed suicide.

As part of the settlement, that district must enact new policies and strategies to eliminate gender- and sexuality-based harassment. The implications for school districts nationwide are clear: schools have both a moral and a legal obligation to intervene in such bullying.

This past spring, the Colorado Legacy Foundation released “A Statewide Blueprint for Bullying Prevention,” a report based on the Statewide Bullying Prevention Summit in April. Summit participants found that schools and teachers in Colorado are committed to addressing bullying, but that actual practice sometimes falls short of intentions. While 98 percent of teachers said it was their job to intervene in bullying, only 54 percent reported receiving training in their district’s bullying policies. Teachers identified the greatest areas of need for training as cyberbullying and sexting, as well as bullying related to sexual orientation, gender issues and disability.

This year, the Colorado legislature beefed up the state’s anti-bullying statutes, adding language to address the growing problem of cyberbullying, and making evidence-based resources available to schools, Kanan said.

“They also added some encouragement for schools to take a look at dress code policies, to look at surveying the nature of bullying on campuses and to think about having a team of people who can respond and guide the school,” she said.

Kanan said Colorado schools must also now have in place appropriate disciplinary consequences for students who bully, and must prohibit retaliation against students who report bullying. In addition, schools are now required to report incidents of bullying when they file reports of other disciplinary procedures with the state.

No safe haven from the cyberspace bully

Increasingly, however, much bullying takes places in cyberspace, which is often beyond the reach of schools. National surveys indicate about 20 percent of young people report being victimized at some point online or through text messages.

A study published in April 2010 found that 14- to 17-year-old girls send and receive an average of 100 text messages a day,” Kanan said. “That’s the impact of technology on our kids.”

Cyberbullies have one huge advantage over traditional playground bullies: they don’t ever have to look their victim in the face. They don’t have to see first-hand the pain they cause.

“The cyber world doesn’t allow us to see impact on another person,” Kanan said. “I can’t see you crying or see how upset you are because you’re removed from me. It takes away the feedback loop that teaches children ‘Oh, I just did something to hurt someone.’ We want kids to have face-to-face interactions so they can see how their actions impact others.”

Kanan says parents must be intentional about teaching their children to be empathetic.

“Lots of parents teach a child not to take a toy away from someone else, but they fail to go one step further, to show that child how taking a toy away hurts another person,” she said. “You have to be explicit about that.”

Parents must monitor children’s use of technology

Harms advises parents to be pro-active in monitoring their children’s use of technology. One tip: insist that children’s cell phones be put in a parent’s bedroom at night – because it’s not just the phones that need to be recharged.

“I believe the figure is 25 percent of girls in a relationship with someone are getting either phone calls or text messages all through the night between midnight and 5 a.m.,” Harms said. “Parents may not know that their kids aren’t getting any sleep because they’re spending all night chatting with friends.”

Other tips:

  • You SHOULD “friend” your kids on Facebook, so you can read their posts and have some idea about what they’re chatting about. But, says Harms, be aware that savvy youngsters may have multiple Facebook accounts, and they may willingly grant you access only to some of them. “There’s the one they use for their parents, and there’s the one where they post inappropriate pictures,” Harms said.
  • If you believe your child is being cyberbullied, save the evidence. Take screen shots, or if you don’t know how to do that, then physically take a picture with a camera of threatening messages. Save emails, in case you need to go to police. If you can figure out who is sending threatening messages, you can contact the sender’s internet provider and lodge a complaint. “Sometimes, it’s enough just to block the communication and ignore the bully, because the bully is looking for the satisfaction of getting your kid riled up,” Harms said.
  • Consider putting spyware on your computer. Youngsters will bristle at parents who do this, Harms warns, but it may be worth facing their youthful wrath. “Let your kids know that it’s not so much to keep tabs on them but so you can see what’s coming in. Let them know that you will periodically look at all their messages.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.